You just can’t win with phone companies. Talk too much and they can cut you off. And if you text instead of chatting they can pull the plug on you for that too.
If you don’t use your phone frequently enough your account can be terminated and any remaining credit lost along with your number.
Vodafone has just cut off my husband's PAYG mobile which had £15-worth of credit on it. Admittedly it was his ‘spare’ phone, but he received both calls and texts on it including a weekly text from his bank with an account update and even made the occasional call.
[Related: Nokia makes 'better' Maps app for iPhone users]
So last week when his phone didn’t work he rang Vodafone, only to be told he hadn’t used it enough and his account had been terminated. His number and outstanding credit were both lost. Despite the fact that his main ‘personal’ mobile account is also with Vodafone, there was no call, text or letter to warn him of the impending cut off.
Why Vodafone cut him off
So what’s the sense behind this? After all heaps of people have a second mobile for emergencies or keep one as a ‘spare’ in case they lose or mislay their main one.
Vodafone lays the blame for its cut off policy at the door of the regulator Ofcom, as it says it is under pressure to be ‘economical’ with the issuing of phone numbers, so it will simply ‘recycle’ the old ones.
And if PAYG customers don’t make a ‘chargeable’ call within 180 days Vodafone will assume your number is no longer needed. So it pops that number in the pot for ‘churning’, which means it can be handed out to someone else. According to Vodafone’s small print it doesn't actually have to warn you of any impending cut off.
What’s the deal with other providers?
Most other mobile networks have clauses in their terms and conditions to the effect that if the account hasn’t been ‘used’ for 180 days they will disconnect it. So you’ll lose any remaining credit and in some cases your number too.
However there’s an anomaly over what counts as ‘use’. With T-Mobile and Orange sending a text, making a call or any data usage within 180 days is enough to keep your account up and running. With Virgin Mobile or O2 it’s a text or call, whereas with others like Vodafone a text isn’t sufficient - you must make a ‘chargeable’ call.
At Tesco Mobile the small print is somewhat unclear as its terms and conditions say, ‘if you do not use your mobile phone for six months we will disconnect you and you will lose your credit and mobile phone number’. When pushed Tesco Mobile did clarify this by saying ‘use’ means a chargeable call, text or top-up within six months to keep your account active.
Is there an early warning system?
Ofcom says providers are well within their rights to recycle unused numbers and can set their own limits as to what counts as low usage, providing details are laid out clearly in the terms and conditions. And there’s no obligation on providers to contact you if you’re nearing the limit for non-usage.
While Vodafone, O2 and Tesco Mobile don’t warn customers of any impending disconnection, T-Mobile say it does send customers two text messages to warn them of low usage.
Any way back once your phone’s disconnected?
Beyond the 180 day cut off point (when your phone stops working) some companies do have a temporary grace period, which they call ‘quarantine’ or ‘hibernation’. During this time, which can be up to three months with some providers, your number can usually be reinstated free of charge by calling customer services. However you’ll usually forfeit any outstanding credit.
But with other providers like Tesco Mobile, how long you’ve got to claw back your number can be a grey area. Tesco Mobile’s press office first told me there was a ‘three to four month’ grace period beyond its 180 day limit, then they reneged on that saying it was just a week and finally came back to admit you actually had one month from the 180 day disconnection point to keep your number.
But watch out as the small print warns of a re-connection fee too.
Stray beyond any ‘hibernation’ or quarantine period and your number is gone for good along with any chance of any ‘goodwill’ credit refund.
Can you complain?
If you think your account’s been cut unfairly or before any agreed time limit, contact your network provider and if the situation’s not resolved to your satisfaction within eight weeks you can ask to use its Alternative Dispute Resolution Scheme.
Ofcom says all operators must be signed up to one of these services, which act as middleman between both customer and company.