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Mobile companies face probe over customer service

Mobile phone companies face an official investigation into their treatment of the public, the Independent has learned.

Consumer Focus, the Government's new consumer champion, believes the £15bn-a-year mobile phone industry is guilty of providing appalling customer service and intends to make it one of its priorities.

An investigation could be launched within months. Phone companies found to be abusing customers could be named and shamed, while ministers may be urged to regulate the industry more closely.

Consumer Focus was formed last month from the merger of the National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch, with a brief to raise consumer protection. It has stronger investigative powers than its predecessors, including the right to demand data from companies.

In his first press interview, Ed Mayo, chief executive of Consumer Focus, said: “We have identified mobile phones as an area of crying consumer concern – high complaints, sometimes quite shoddy customer services. On the face of it, it is an area for a new consumer champion.

“What we’ll start off doing - when we launch a probe, probably in the New Year - is to have a sweep across the mobile phone sector to see where the most urgent issues are.”

Mr Mayo, formerly chief executive of the National Consumer Council, said that there was evidence the mobile phone companies were using “bully boy tactics” to prevent the communications regulator from improving the lot of consumers.

In September, Ofcom was forced to back down on plans to reduce the amount of time it takes to transfer numbers between providers – number portability – after a court challenge from the industry.

Research suggests that people are irritated by the service they receive from the phone giants. Complaints about mobile phone contracts to the Consumer Direct hotline soared by 49 per cent in 2007, making them the second-most complained-about subject after used cars.

Persistent complaints have surrounded the long length of contracts, typically 18 months, and bogus cashback offers.

Other problems are salesmen transferring contracts between phone providers without obtaining permission and premium rate ‘scams’.

Mr Mayo said: “This is a regulated sector so we can encourage the regulator to take an action where we will.

“I think we have a strong feeling that there is work to do there. One of the issues for concern is the way that some of the mobile phone companies appear to indulge in bully boy tactics to try to browbeat the regulator out of doing the right thing for consumers.

“And I will give you an example of this – number portability. It ought to be able to be easy to take your mobile phone company with you when you switch provider but at the moment it’s a slow and laborious process and many people may not even be aware of the option.”

He continued: “The regulator came ahead with very sensible proposals to catch up on this issue and they’ve been taken to the courts and stopped in their tracks.”

Mr Mayo said: “Now this has got to be the right thing for consumers, to encourage switching to get a more competitive market, so to block the switching in this way seems to be a way of protecting their profits rather than putting customers first.”

Eighty-six per cent of the 47 million adults in the UK own a mobile phone – some 40 million adults.

Some have more than one handset because the total number of mobile connections is 74 million. Four in 10 calls are made from mobile phones.