Phone firms accused of conning customers

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Thousands of home-phone customers are still being duped into switching telecoms providers a year after a crackdown by regulators. Ofcom, the industry watchdog, has admitted it has no evidence that complaints about "slamming" have fallen since it introduced sales rules last May.

Last night, Ofcom named the companies about which it receives the most complaints of slamming - where customers' home-phone suppliers are switched without their consent - and other types of mis-selling.

The worst offender is the south London-based Lo-Rate Telecom. Ofcom said 21 per cent of customers whose phone services were transferred to Lo-Rate in the first quarter of the year subsequently complained about the switch. Ofcom also criticised the Birmingham-based Orb Communications, where 9.9 per cent of new customers complained, and Platinum Telecom, which formerly shared an office building with Lo-Rate in Hemel Hempstead. Almost 3 per cent of its new customers complained.

All three companies have been the target of Ofcom investigations over the past six months, but each company claimed it was unfair to single them out.

A spokesman for Lo-Rate said a small number of complaints had skewed the figures because it had stopped taking on new business early in the year. A spokesman for Orb said most of the complaints were related to another business that it took over last year, while a spokesman for Platinum denied any connection with Lo-Rate and said it expected a much lower figure in the second quarter.

Ed Knight, of Ofcom, said the regulator was receiving about 600 complaints a month from phone companies, but conceded it was impossible to say whether last year's crackdown had resulted in a reduction in the number of disputes. "There is no data available on that," he said.

BT, which triggered last year's action when it said it was getting more than 20,000 calls a month from customers alleging rivals had tried to mis-sell to them, said it did not believe Ofcom's campaign had been effective.

"It is depressing that a year since Ofcom made companies introduce strict sales and marketing codes, large numbers of customers are still being upset by the selling tactics of a wide range of companies, big and small," said John Petter, chief operating officer of the company's consumer division. "We are still getting up to 20,000 complaints a month about competitors - a staggering 225,000 over the past 12 months."

Carphone Warehouse performed well in Ofcom's analysis, with just 0.14 per cent of new customers complaining they had been mis-sold a contract. However, the company has been criticised for introducing an automated marketing system.