Mobile phones charge plan 'is outrageous'

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The Independent Online

Industrial Correspondent

The Consumers' Association has attacked as "outrageous" plans to impose a monthly call charge limit on some mobile telephone customers or force them to pay a deposit.

The scheme - intended to combat fraud - is being introduced by Cellphones Direct, a mobile service provider, but industry sources say that other companies may follow suit.

Cellphones Direct has said that from next February new customers will be limited to pounds 50 per month and must pay a deposit to have this extended.

Existing customers will also be constrained to pounds 50, but can negotiate a higher limit with the company. In addition, international calls will be barred on all new phones unless customers reach some agreement with the company. This could involve leaving a substantial deposit to have the ban removed. Cellphone Direct said that the moves will help give customers "peace of mind" and that it is setting standards "which will become the industry norm".

The company, which deals mainly with customers connecting to the Vodafone network, said that the purpose is to protect it from giving unlimited credit and to protect customers from theft or unauthorised use of their telephones. Illicit use of mobile telephones costs the industry an estimated pounds 100m a year although Cellnet and Vodafone, the largest network operators, say they are making great strides in getting the problem under control.

A spokesman for the Consumers' Association attacked the proposal by Cellphones Direct, saying: "This is just another example of an industry in a complete mess which is asking the customer to pay the price.

"It simply is up to the industry to provide a secure service for the people who use it and to provide a solid technical solution to the problem. People already pay through the nose for using mobile telephones."

Oftel, the telecommunications watchdog, said that service providers, which are middlemen between the network operators and the customers, are not licensed and so fall outside its sphere of influence. A spokeswoman said: "If that is the package they wish to offer then they are free to do so."

Roger Fry, managing director of Cellphones Direct, rejected the suggestion that he is asking the consumer to pick up an extra bill. He said that the company's average customers are not business users and spend between pounds 10 and pounds 15 per month on calls. The pounds 50 limit was chosen both to protect and to give people as much flexibility as possible, he said.

The incidence of mobile telephone fraud may be reduced as more people transfer to new digital networks, which are much more secure than the old analogue systems. But while digital technology might stem "cloning" of mobile telephones, it cannot prevent people "buying" phones using other people's credit card numbers or names and addresses and simply not paying the bill.

Both Cellnet and Vodafone said that the industry clearly has a problem and that service providers have to do something to protect their interests. They said there are already safeguards in the networks which flag up unusually high spending on a given telephone or unexpected calling patterns.

Look who's talking

Estimated mobile telephone customers: 5 million.

Number using digital networks: 1 million

Calls made each day on mobile networks: about 20 million.