The UK’s biggest mobile phone company has been hit with a £2.7m fine by Ofcom for overcharging thousands of customers. Owned by BT, the phone provider incorrectly charged customers who called the EE customer service number ‘150’ while roaming in the EU. Customers were charged as if they had called the US, with customers incurring charges of £1.20 per minute, instead of the correct 19p per minute. This mistake saw at least 32,145 customers overcharged £245,700.
Ofcom’s investigation into this overcharging placed the blame squarely at EE’s ‘carelessness’ and ‘negligence’, with the regulator slamming the mobile phone provider for not choosing to reimburse the majority of affected customers until its intervention.
Ofcom further found that EE’s claim that it could not identify the people it overcharged was false.
“This fine has come about not due to mistakes made in overcharging – due to the sheer complexity of major telecoms businesses, such mistakes are incredibly common – but due to EE’s poor handling and devil may care attitude to reimbursement,” said Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms expert at Cable.co.uk.
“Providers across the entire sector should see this as a stark warning: Fix your mistakes or there will be consequences. This morning, other major providers will be taking a long, hard look at both their billing rules and the methods used to address errors made.”
A second, further mistake was found by Ofcom, with an investigation revealing that EE continued to bill 7,674 customers for calling or texting the EE customer service number within the EU. This was despite the phone provider making it free to call or text that number from 18 November 2015, with customers found to still be charged until 11 January 2016.
In total, these customers were overcharged £2,203.33, although EE did take prompt action on this occasion and issued full refunds to those affected.
Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said: “EE didn’t take enough care to ensure that its customers were billed accurately. This ended up costing customers thousands of pounds, which is completely unacceptable.
“We monitor how phone companies bill their customers, and will not tolerate careless mistakes. Any company that breaks Ofcom’s rules should expect similar consequences.”
As a result of Ofcom’s investigations, EE will now have 20 days to pay the £2.7m fine imposed by the regulator. Although Ofcom recognised that the majority of customers have now been refunded, EE was unable to identify at least 6,905 customers, who were more than £60,000 out of pocket in total.
To address this, EE has pledged £62,000 to charity in lieu of the payments owed to these customers. However, in addition to today’s fine, Ofcom is requiring EE to make further attempts to trace and refund every customer who was overcharged.
In a statement, EE said: “We accept these findings and apologise unreservedly to those customers affected by these technical billing issues between 2014 & 2015. We have put measures in place to prevent this from happening again, and have contacted the majority of customers to apologise and provide a full refund. For those customers that we could not identify, we donated the remaining excess fees to charitable causes in line with Ofcom’s guidelines.”
EE’s statement was also followed by a number of background points, with the first point throwing the spotlight on rival Vodafone. Offering context, EE said that ‘this fine follows Ofcom’s £4.6m fine to Vodafone in October 2016 for their handling of billing issues.” EE was then keen to reiterate that the billing issue “affected less than 0.1% of our base.”