Questions of Cash: Hooked up to a 'phantom' Tiscali account for eight years


Q. TalkTalk informed me early last year of changes in the terms and conditions of my account. I was unaware of any such account! Upon enquiry, TalkTalk explained it had taken over Tiscali and I had "been made aware of this". I briefly had an internet account with Tiscali, which I cancelled in 2003. When I checked my bank statements, I found that direct debits had been collected from 2003 to 2011.

Apparently when TalkTalk took over Tiscali three years ago, I should have been given a new contract and account number and asked to register a telephone number and address. Instead, I was unaware of the takeover and received no TalkTalk "welcome pack". Consequently, the direct debits continued and I was unaware I had an active account. I have now established that I cancelled my Tiscali account on 4 January 2003 and this was processed by Tiscali on 9 October 2004, yet the direct debit payments continued to be collected.

TalkTalk promised on 4 August last year to conduct a further investigation, but there has been no progress. TalkTalk denies responsibility for any overpayment. I cannot contact it through its online helpdesk – you must produce an account number and registered phone number and I do not have either. I am now being pestered by Credit Account Recovery Solutions on behalf of TalkTalk, presumably claiming some unpaid bill – which I have never received. FJ, Dorchester

A. This column has probably had more complaints about Tiscali and TalkTalk over the years than about any other company. However, there have been major steps forward with TalkTalk's customer services and this is the first complaint against it we have received for a long time. TalkTalk has now investigated your complaint properly and accepts you are correct. A Tiscali spokesman says: "We're sorry that we did not cancel [the reader's] Tiscali dial-up account as requested. We have apologised and refunded all charges." You have received a cheque for £1,468.61 — about £200 more than you calculated you were owed. We have also asked TalkTalk to confirm that the debt collector has been instructed to close its account.

Q. Way back, BT quietly added a "cheque processing fee" to its quarterly bills for customers wishing to pay in this way. This seems unfair: the charge is £5.70 and it can't possibly cost this much to process a cheque. I know of no other business that has the nerve to resort to this. AP, Kent

A. A spokesman for BT responded: "We believe it is fair and reasonable for there to be a price differential between customers paying by direct debit and those who don't. BT maintains a differential because it costs more to process non-direct debit payments – in transaction costs and in the costs of chasing people who forget to pay. Our differential is £1.89 a month, whereas other companies charge more or refuse to accept customers who won't pay by direct debit. We have been very careful to ensure that customers on low income, who are on our social telephony tariff BT Basic, do not pay this fee. Other companies do not offer such safety nets."

The industry regulator, Ofcom, advised us that it has given guidance to BT and its competitors regarding these charges. A spokeswoman explained: "We expect these charges to be made clear to consumers and to be fair." It is also important to note that the Consumer Rights Directive, which must be implemented in the UK by the end of 2013, will specifically ban non-direct debit charges which exceed the trader's costs.

Q. Four-and-a-half years ago, I took out a telephone line service with Unicom. I am now changing address and will be making other telephone arrangements. Unicom is charging me £100 for an "early exit". It seems that I signed up for a deal which, unless I close it on the anniversary of the start date, allows Unicom to charge this fee for the non-use of the remainder of the year. I can appreciate a charge for an early exit in the first year, but after four-and-a-half years this seems excessive. Unicom has never forewarned me of the approach of the annual renewal of the contract. Surely this cannot be right? RB, Kent

A. A Unicom spokeswoman said: "[The reader] did indeed agree to enter into a telecommunication agreement with Unicom for an initial supply period of one year. The agreement provisioned for the automatic rollover of the agreement for subsequent periods of one year at a time, unless written notice was received three months prior to the anniversary date. If notice is received in accordance with the terms and conditions, the customer is free to transfer their services away on or after the anniversary date, with no charge becoming applicable."

In your case, you phoned Unicom on 18 June this year to request a cancellation from 31 July, when you were moving premises. You declined to move the phone service with you. Unicom then advised you that an exit fee would be charged. However, as a result of us contacting Unicom on your behalf, it has agreed to waive the charge on this occasion as a gesture of goodwill and recognising that you have been a valuable customer.

We looked at Ofcom's guidance on charges, and application of exit fees on an automatically renewed contract appears to us to be in breach of Ofcom's guidance regarding unfair terms. The guidance specifies that unfair terms may be challengeable in the courts. Ofcom tells us that from the beginning of this year, phone companies have been prohibited from entering new customers into automatically renewable contracts. Existing customers will be similarly safeguarded from the beginning of 2013.

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