If you use a mobile phone the chances are that you have fallen into the trap of calling 0800 and other special numbers used by government departments, helplines and organisations and finding yourself paying up to 40 pence a minute, or even more, as a result.
Millions of us, rich and poor, have been caught out over the last decade as use of both mobile phones and so-called "non-geographic numbers" has risen. However, there are signs that solutions are on the way. Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, is deciding on whether it will stop mobile network providers charging users for calls made to 0800 numbers.
The issue has become an irritant to many of us with jobs and decent earnings. But it has long been a potential crisis area for people on low incomes. In a submission to Ofcom on the future of non-geographical numbers, Citizens Advice gives numerous examples of people on benefits, with disabilities and with dependents who had to spend sums which were substantial to them – often more than £10 – trying to contact government departments and local authorities to resolve their problems. In several of these cases, the frustration of seeing their phone credits eaten up while listening to recorded messages intensified their stress levels and made it harder for them to cope. Calls to 0800 numbers are free from landlines but 15 per cent of adults, rising to 40 per cent among poorer groups, are totally reliant on their mobiles.
MPs and Citizens Advice have been seeing people struggle in this area for many years. Labour MP John Battle tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons to highlight the issue in 2009, and Liberal Democrat Ian Swales tabled another this summer. Mary Glindon, Labour MP for North Tyneside, is planning to publicise the issue this autumn, after finding that constituents were having difficulties paying for 0800 and other non-geographical numbers.
About one in seven adults has no landline, according to Ofcom, and so are forced to bear the higher charges that are usually levied on mobile phone users for ringing these numbers. The regulator says: "People are confused about what these numbers mean and how much calls cost." While Ofcom limits the sums that BT can charge, individual mobile operators are generally able to charge what they want. Since charges vary from one provider to another, it is difficult to know what calls are likely to cost in advance – unless people carefully study their own operator's terms.
However, both Citizens Advice and Ms Glindon are optimistic that a solution is on the horizon. In the next four months Ofcom is due to announce whether it will require charges to be dropped on calls to 0800 numbers by all mobile network providers. But the regulator admits that this route is not its "preferred option to address many of the current problems". The regulator prefers the idea of making charges more transparent. There is also a third option in which charges could be capped. Citizens Advice, however, is clear where it stands on free calls, saying in a statement: "We think it would be a massive missed opportunity if calls on 0800 numbers to government departments are not now made free from mobile phones."
Thinking of her constituents who have been charged for phoning to sort out their tax affairs, pensions, driving licences and other basic issues, Ms Glindon is also clear – and hopeful that Ofcom will ban 0800 charges. She says: "I shall seek the support of MPs from all parties which will outline the problem and back the Citizens Advice and Ofcom in proposals to make 0800 numbers free from mobile phones. This should not be a controversial issue and I don't see any reason why MPs cannot unite to send a clear message that the Ofcom proposals are righting a growing source of social injustice and exclusion."
Although Ofcom's review of policy in this area has the biggest potential to help the largest number of people, there are other smaller initiatives afoot. In January this year, the Department for Work and Pensions negotiated deals with nine of the UK's mobile phone network providers, representing 95 per cent of the market, through which calls to the department's 0800 lines are free from mobiles.
This has largely erased one of the most common problems that Citizens Advice saw in this area – individuals who needed to get a crisis loan through the department's 0800 helpline being charged several pounds as they were trying to make a telephone application. "This is obviously a good thing," says Cathy Finnegan, from Citizens Advice. "But it's only one organisation." And the department retains 0845 numbers for calls which, it says, "typically take less time to resolve".
Meanwhile, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has accepted that it also needs to act on its use of 0845 numbers. These numbers are charged at local rates from landlines but often attract far higher rates from mobiles. An HMRC spokesman says: "We recognise the cost of calling its 0845 lines can be an issue for some customers and we are currently reviewing our numbering strategy." It has been operating these lines for at least six years. Since then, the number of mobile phone users has surged. A total of 91 per cent of adults own a mobile, according to Ofcom.
However, HMRC will not announce the outcome of its review until 2012 since it has decided to wait to see what Ofcom exactly proposes. And when Ofcom announces the way forward it will consult again on the practicalities. The changes could take a couple of years to come through.
Help is at hand for people who have the time and resources to research the area. Some organisations provide different numbers for their helplines. The Financial Ombudsman Service gives three options – an 0800 number, a 0300 number and a local number. Local numbers can be better for people using mobiles as the charges are often lower than for the non-geographic numbers. In many mobile packages, calls to landlines are free.
There is also SayNoTo0870.com which lists landline numbers for a range of 0800, 0870 and other non-geographic numbers. As it says on the site, "Many companies advertise a separate number that can be used when calling from abroad. This usually begins in the format +44. There is nothing to stop you using this number from the UK (as it is a normal rate telephone call), and will be included in any inclusive minutes provided by your landline or mobile phone provider. Many others will give you a standard number if you ask."
While Ofcom goes into the final stage of its decision-making process, Ms Glindon, Citizens Advice and many citizens will be hoping the regulator does not fall back on the option of merely insisting that charges are explained better.
On average, adults are paying £38 a year to call these numbers from landlines and mobiles. This adds up to nearly £2bn a year. As well as 0800 and 0300, there are numerous different types of number, and consumers would often need to do calculations to work out final charges. Citizens Advice says: "We are far from convinced that many consumers would remember this information or have it readily to hand."
From Mary Glindon MP's post bag:
"I've needed to be in touch with a number of government departments and have watched my phone bill almost treble. While I'm on the phone I'm always conscious of the cost. Today I have been on to the Tax Credit Office. I was on the phone listening to messages for nine minutes before I was informed that there were no operators available to take my call, at 10p per minute, this cost me 90p and I didn't get to speak to anyone. I have previous phone bills to give you examples of the charges. This month in particular will be higher as I've had to ring the job centre and child benefit. My bill will be due to arrive with these calls on, I'm frightened to look at them myself. Thank you for highlighting these ... calls, they really do hit those who can't afford it."
From Citizens Advice:
"The cost of these calls makes me nervous about making them; it tends to put me off when I need to speak to organisations like Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs or even the local library service; a recent call to HMRC cost me over £6. I can't believe I'm the only one who thinks mobile phone companies are able to charge far too much for this kind of call; I even have to pay to phone 0800 numbers."
From the more affluent:
"I had to phone the bank on an 0844 number. I made two phone calls, one of 50 minutes and one of 35 minutes, from my mobile. It cost £17. You see the warning that you will be charged for this call but this is a lot of cash. Lots of people are using mobiles now."
* Citizens Advice: citizensadvice.org.uk
* Ofcom: ofcom.org.uk