WHILE IT MAY sound peculiar that people who contact the National Consumer Agency (NCA) to complain about rip-off prices have to fork out as much as ¤3.50 for a 10-minute call to one of its agents, that can be the case if the call is made using a mobile phone rather than a landline.
Like many banks, insurance companies, Government departments and other State and semi-state bodies, the NCA advertises a so-called lo-call 1890 number on its main consumer contact page. Unlike ComReg, the Financial Regulator and the Data Protection Commissioner, to name just three organisations also representing the interests of consumers, the NCA does not list a landline contact number for consumer inquiries.
It is a peculiar oversight, as the lo-call 1890 number is anything but low cost when called from a mobile. The cost of making such a call from a landline is 5.1 cent a minute during peak hours and 1.3 cent off-peak from anywhere in the country. The cost of making the same call using a mobile can be as high as €0.35 a minute and, unlike landline numbers, which are routinely included in the bundled “free” minutes offered by the mobile phone and landline operators, calls to 1890, 1850 and 0818 numbers are excluded from such deals.
While many large organisations advertise their lo-call numbers as if they were entirely to the consumer’s benefit, they don’t make any mention of the potential cost. To its credit, the NCA does at least carry a note on all its promotional literature alluding to the fact that the costs of calling the number from a mobile may vary, although they don’t say by how much.
Not only mobile phone users are penalised for calling lo-call numbers. Some landline customers also find themselves out of pocket, because landline deals offering unlimited calls for fixed monthly prices exclude 1890, 1850 and 0818 calls.
Given its role of protecting the Irish consumer, the NCA should be beyond reproach when it comes to consumer matters, so its failure to offer a choice of both landline and lo-call numbers is surprising. We contacted the agency and were told that it had initially considered using a freephone number as its main contact but had been cautioned against it as 1800 numbers tend to generate large volumes of “crank calls”, which, it said, would hamper it in its objective of handling a greater number of genuine consumer queries.
THE NCA SAYS its call centre in Cork will handle 90,000 calls this year and the number of complaints in connection with its 1890 number are “extremely low”. It told PriceWatch that its Dublin-based staff “are not trained to offer call-centre services” but consumers who call its corporate headquarters with inquiries are connected to the Cork-based call centre at no additional cost, making it a much cheaper, if little publicised, avenue for mobile phone users.
The NCA stresses that 1890 billing practices are “an issue of commercial practice by those operators concerned” and says the cost of the calls to its own number “remains under scrutiny internally”. It has plans to raise the inclusion of a landline as a potential option when tendering for call-centre services within the next month.
One person who would welcome such a move is consumer activist Diarmuid MacShane. A year ago, he was aghast when he opened his mobile bill and saw the “horrendous” charges associated with calling lo-call numbers. When he rang his operator to complain, a customer service representative empathised but said there was nothing that could be done about it.
MacShane DISAGREED. Mirroring a similar campaign in the UK, he set up an anti-1890 website, www.saynoto1890.com. The site lists the alternative landline contact numbers for companies using 1890 numbers so people calling them from mobiles at least have the choice of saving themselves a few bob.
“The numbers are advertised by service providers as being lo-call and call-save. Unfortunately that only applies to landlines, and I don’t think that people who have these numbers actually realise the impact to mobile users,” he believes.
He says some businesses use these numbers because of their “national” non-regional nature while others “like them because they provide easy-to-remember numbers – so if it’s making it easier for people to call, and therefore to get business, they might not be too concerned about their cost to their customers. But I think that even more people would become annoyed through greater exposure of the cost implications, which many people probably aren’t aware of.”
We contacted the four mobile providers last week and all four confirmed that calls to 1890 numbers are not included in their bundled minutes. They charge a range of prices of up to €0.35 cent a minute.
When we asked why they were not included in bundles, we got broadly similar, if not entirely convincing, answers from all the providers. O2 said it excluded calls to 1890 numbers “on the basis that they are a non-standard call. The exclusion of certain non-standard calls from bundled minutes on price plans is standard industry practice,” a statement said, adding: “As a mobile operator, O2 facilitates access to 1890 numbers for its customers and charges a flat rate of 35c per minute to ensure transparency.”
For its part, Vodafone said it did not include calls to 1890 numbers because it was concentrated on “offering value where the customer needs it the most and in keeping our tariff plans as simple as possible for the consumer. Including non-standard calls makes the tariffs confusing,” Vodafone claimed.
The company doesn’t, however, find it confusing to vary the charges associated with calling 1890 numbers depending on the package consumers subscribe to – people with 600 free minutes pay €0.18, those with 400-minute bundles pay €0.20 up to a maximum of €0.30 a minute.
Meanwhile, 3 Mobile charges €0.30 a minute to dial 1890 numbers while Meteor told us it did not include calls to 1890 or 1850 numbers, again citing “standard industry practice” as the reason. To its credit, however, at €0.15 a minute it is the cheapest of the networks for such calls.
MacShane says there is no justification for the charges to be higher than normal calls to landlines, and he can see “no reason to not have them included in minutes bundles. Given that the aim of mobile companies is to reduce the total number of landline minutes used in the country, so more and more people will be calling these numbers from mobiles. It’s easy money”. He says the line trotted out by the phone companies that it is “standard industry practice” could be translated to mean “we charge what we do because we can, and people pay it”.