Ofcom moves to hang up on phone cheats

Telecoms watchdog Ofcom is to introduce new rules in an attempt to crack down on companies that have tried to mis-sell home phone services to more than 100,000 customers over the past year.

Telecoms watchdog Ofcom is to introduce new rules in an attempt to crack down on companies that have tried to mis-sell home phone services to more than 100,000 customers over the past year.

From May, the regulator will be able to fine companies that are caught "slamming", switching customers' home phone provider without permission. The rules follow increasing concerns that the home phone market, which has been opened to competition over the past two years, could face a repeat of the problems that dogged gas and electricity consumers when the energy market was deregulated.

Hundreds of thousands of homeowners complained they had been conned into signing up for a new energy provider by door-to-door salesmen. Ed Knight, a spokesman for Ofcom, said there was increasing evidence of similar practices among home phone providers.

An investigation by the watchdog into allegations made by market leader BT concluded 7,500 customers a month are being approached by salesmen acting dishonestly. "As competition in this market has grown, so too has the number of people affected by mis-selling," said Knight.

BT managing director Gavin Patterson said the Ofcom announcement vindicated its campaign against slamming. But he said the watchdog's move to force operators to draw up their own codes of conduct did not go far enough.

"We need a single mandatory code of best practice because Ofcom is not going to be able to monitor and enforce all these companies' codes," he said.

Many phone customers discover they have been a victim of slamming only when they receive a letter from the new provider explaining it has a contract to supply phone services.

However, Uswitch, the price comparison service, said it was vital to ensure there were no obstacles stopping phone customers seeking a better deal.

"We think this is the right way to act," said Uswitch's Chris Williams. "Mis-selling has not yet reached the scale of the problem which affected the energy industry, but it is a growing problem that needs to be nipped in the bud."

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