Slamming is an extreme form of mis-selling where a communications provider switches a customer to a new provider without their knowledge and/or consent. It happens to both businesses and consumers and can be very disconcerting for customers - the first you may know about it is when, out of the blue, you receive a bill from a new company.
In my case, the conversation was deliberately misleading with a claim that they were ‘working very closely with BT ‘ and that they had noticed that we were being charged the wrong rate on our BT account and wanted to rectify this by moving the account to a cheaper rate. The overall aim was to imply that we were talking to an agent of our current provider and that any change would be with that same provider. But, not surprisingly, the caller was unable to give the name of the contact person for the account, the type of account we hold, or to quote accurately the amount we were paying - despite having apparently noticed that it was too high.
Other ‘slams' include taking an order for a broadband line but switching the telephone account at the same time, asking a customer to sign for information but then switching the consumer to a different provider and even forging a customer's signature on a contract without the customer's consent.
Ofcom has been consulting on proposals to clamp down on slamming and other forms of mis-selling in the fixed-line telecoms market. There most recent consultation suggested a two stage approach.
Stage 1, which they propose to implement straight away, includes an outright ban on mis-selling as part of a set of simplified regulations that all providers must heed.
Stage 2 will be revisited in a consultation document to be published towards the end of this year following a cost/benefit assessment. Stage 2 proposals include:
The Communications Consumer Panel has welcomed Ofcom's proposals to strengthen the regulatory framework that governs the switching of fixed-line services, and we would also like to see Ofcom develop a strategy to move to a single switching process for all communications services as soon as possible.
The Panel would like Ofcom to work with industry to understand better the nature and scale of the mis-selling problem because we recognise that even where people are not slammed they can suffer considerable anxiety and distress, and we believe it important to understand:
We would also like to see financial penalties that have a wider deterrent effect on providers that break the rules thereby helping to raise the level of compliance across the industry.
There was a general sense of optimism - and quite a lot of excitement - at yesterday's Westminster eForum on the Future of Mobile. The strapline ‘More than Talk....' aptly summed up much of the sense of the discussion, with ‘aps' (applications) very much the buzz term. Aps of the future varied from using your mobile as a check-out device at supermarkets to the Chinese authorities using mobile to keep track of sheep in the more remote parts of their country; and it's worth noting the extraordinarily high levels of mobile penetration in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa.
In a session on the future of regulation, I introduced something of a reality check on behalf of the Consumer Panel, reminding the audience of the Panel's work on consumer concerns relating to mobile coverage here and now, in the UK.
Of course, the mobile industry has been very successful in developing over the years, against a framework of relatively light touch regulation, to the extent that the mobile device is now central to our lives; but with centrality comes responsibility and there remain issues to be resolved. In addition to truly reliable coverage, consumers want good and better information; better complaints handling; a better process for porting numbers - to name just a few. Kevin Russell, the Chief Executive, 3, who was the keynote speaker, made a particular plea that the high level of termination charges should be tackled.
Several speakers echoed one of the Panel's concerns that, with the range of services available from a mobile device, a number of different regulators might be involved - Ofcom, PhonePayPlus, the ASA, the Financial Services Authority, the Gambling Commission and others. Regulators need to agree that one will take ownership of a customer's issue when it cuts across more than one regulator's area of responsibility.
Regulation should protect consumers while delivering the competition and innovation that is ultimately in their best interests. Industry has the opportunity to tackle consumer concerns and avoid the need for overly intrusive regulation going forward.
At this month's Panel meeting we discussed reports from each of our national members. I had asked them to tell us something about three things: the political context and issues for consumers in their nation and the way they fulfilled their role as a national Consumer Panel member. This was part of trying to ensure that the Panel are properly able to represent the interests of consumers and citizens in all four nations.
Perhaps the single most important thing to come out of this discussion was just how important rural, low income and small business issues to each of the three devolved nations. Intuitively we knew this already, but the reports made it much plainer. This is not to say that these issues are less important for parts of England, but they are generally significant for the devolved nations. This suggests that learning from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland could help to give real substance to the Panel's responsibility for representing the interests of people on low incomes, in rural environments and running small businesses. We will be talking about how to make this a reality, but I hope it will result in our mainstreaming the work of the national Panel members.
We also had a presentation from a member of Martha Lane-Fox's digital inclusion team about today's launch of the race online to 2012 http://raceonline2012.org/. The Panel has been a strong supporter of the idea of a Digital Champion and has a long interest in digital inclusion. I am a member of the Task Force that was set up to advise Martha in her work as digital inclusion champion, but this is in a personal capacity and it is important for the Panel to make their own contribution to this work.
We also discussed a number of issues with Ofcom including: access and inclusion, digital participation, the review of universal service and some work to clear spectrum for newer services such as mobile broadband which will have the consequence that some consumers will need to retune their televisions after digital switchover.
The publication of new research data on consumer and small business experience on mobile phone use is welcome. This data supports what many have been thinking but had inadequate independent evidence to express. Despite claims about good mobile coverage by many providers, consumers and small businesses do have problems. They have problems because of significant ‘not spots' and because mobility is limited. Few journeys can be made without a disruption of service.
91% of small business users and 56% of consumers across the UK regularly have intermittent and poor quality service - this rises to 59% of consumers in Northern Ireland.
The surprise is that so many report satisfaction with their mobile service given the number of problems experienced. It is also surprising that so few do anything about it. About 1 in 5 consumers will take some sort of action, most often contacting their provider. 3 in 5 small business consumers will take some sort of action, including contacting their provider and even changing supplier. Are our expectations too low? If so it is sad because it is in effect allowing providers to continue delivery of a poor service.
In fact quality of service and reception is more important even than cost. What consumers find most frustrating is to discover no reception in their own home and yet be locked into a contract. Not surprisingly small business users want good coverage in their place of work. 99% of private sector businesses in NI are SME's. For them poor mobile coverage is a business critical issue.
Northern Ireland also has the highest number of mobile only users in the UK. Some 13% of households have mobile only. For them quality of service at home is critical.
What can be done? The Consumer Panel is right to call for:
Let's hope this new research data energises providers, regulators and consumers to do more to get the service improved.