It never fails to amaze me how easily big companies upset their most loyal customers. Competition is growing all the time and millions are spent attracting new customers, but still they do daft things to people who are already on their books, like introducing stealth charges. I've spent much of this week dealing with your emails about BT. I wrote about the telecoms giant in my last column after reader Bryan Cadman got in touch. "My current complaint with BT is that they charged me for caller display, which should be free as I have a year's line rental taken out in advance," he wrote.
It turns out there are many more of you who have been hit by the same unnecessary charge, and you have been in touch to express anger at finding the charge on your bills and have contacted BT to complain. The way it has responded to the complaints has been puzzling, to say the least. John Edwards, of St Albans, saved almost £25 plus future charges, yet Peter Grove, from Salisbury, was refused a refund for the charges he had already paid.
Barry Conway reported: "Just got BT to refund my caller display charge. Thanks." But John Rice says: "I was refused the refund." Paul Fry's experience was mixed: "It was not a smooth process: my initial call to BT resulted in a prolonged and heated exchange with the call centre, who persisted in informing me that a refund was not possible and that I would have to have a new contract to remove the £1.75 charge – despite it being BT's fault in the first place. But I went on BT's online chat service, where I got an immediate result!"
Can you see a pattern emerging? I can't, and I'm afraid things got even more confusing as the week advanced and more of your emails arrived. Here's what happened to Geoffrey Parmenter: "Having read your article, I phoned BT. After briefly outlining my complaint, I was immediately told that they would stop this monthly debit and refund all past payments."
But then Jean Macartney told me: "I have spent 25 minutes on the phone to BT explaining that I have been paying my line rental as a lump sum for several years, and requesting a refund of the caller display charges from January 2014. The response was that I had not activated this service but that they were willing to do this for me now, and as a goodwill gesture they would refund the £1.75 paid in February. My request for a full refund was denied."
There were many similar responses, with about half of you getting a full refund and the rest being denied. Why is there no consistency? The first clue came from James Trout, who was told by BT: "Please be advised that caller display is made free only based on the customer's request."
In other words, if you don't ask for the free service, even if you're eligible for it, you won't get it. That sounds like nonsense, but it's only the half of it, as Pat Sands discovered: "BT told me I should have advised them that I wanted the service free. They said they couldn't change the application of the charge without my instructions. They therefore agreed to 'take my order' today to cancel the charge from today for the next 12 months, and advised that I need to contact them in 11 months' time to reactivate my order and continue to receive BT Privacy for free!"
So any of you who have rung up to get the free service will have to do the same thing again next year. "How ludicrous is BT?" asks Pat Sands. "Obviously this is another very unfair money-making attempt. What chance do consumers have?"
I went back to BT to get clarification. Here is its response: "BT customers can get Caller Display free by signing up for the 12-month free Caller Display offer, which also renews their line contract. Customers can renew their free offer after 12 months to continue to receive it without charge. We contact customers before their free offer expires, so that they have the opportunity to renew it before being charged. If a customer is charged and contacts us to renew their free offer, we'll refund the charges from the first bill they appear on.
"Line Rental Saver enables customers to save money on their line rental. Line Rental Saver customers can benefit from free Caller Display, but they need to sign up for the free Caller Display offer and renew it every 12 months. It isn't our policy to refund Caller Display charges just because a customer has Line Rental Saver."
I passed on the comments to the readers who had got in touch. Michael Bryant quickly replied: "Their response strikes me as ridiculously convoluted and indicative of no clear policy."
He pointed out that if BT wanted to make caller display available, it could simply include it automatically. "It feels more as though they hope the majority will not notice the charge," he said.
This may only be a matter of £1.75 a month, but the sums quickly mount up. It's also symptomatic of a move towards what seem like unfair and creeping charges. I'd encourage more of you to check your BT statement and challenge the charge if it's there. BT should take a consistent approach and a fair one. And the only fair thing to do is to refund charges in all cases where people have been forced to pay them unnecessarily.
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