Ofcom to probe phone and TV firms that won't let you leave

Emma Woollacott
A young woman's hands are locked into handcuffs as she 'slaves away' on a white computer keyboard, against a white background. C
A young woman's hands are locked into handcuffs as she 'slaves away' on a white computer keyboard, against a white background. C

Watchdog Ofcom has promised to investigate broadband and TV companies that make it difficult for customers to leave.

It plans to look into complaints about long waiting times for calls to be answered, and difficulties in getting the porting authorisation codes that are needed to switch between networks.

It will also examine the problems customers face over both billing and unlocking handsets, sometimes long after contracts are over.

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"Ofcom receives a large number of complaints about the difficulties experienced by consumers trying to exit their communications service contract," it says in a statement.

"These suggest that communications providers are systematically making it difficult for customers to exit their contract. We consider this allegation extremely serious, and, if sustained, may result in significant consumer harm."

It will now monitor companies such as Sky, EE, Virgin, TalkTalk and BT for six months, taking action when necessary.

Sky is often cited as one of the hardest companies to leave. In April, we reported on the case of Gavin Hackwood, who spent 96 minutes getting his contract cancelled through the company's online chat service.

Similar complaints are still being made.

"I have been on the phone for over an hour cancelling my full subscription. I spoke to customer service and was halfway through cancelling four multirooms, broadband and Sky Talk when I was told I would only save £17 a month by cancelling these," writes one furious customer on Sky's Facebook page.

"When I queried this I was cut off and it was 8.09. I immediately called back and get the 'sorry we are closed' message."

But one man frustrated that Sky was chasing him for a debt he didn't owe after cancelling his contract, managed to get his own back last month.

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After calculating that he'd spent 55 hours trying to resolve the issue, he billed Sky at £25 an hour for his time. Days before the case was due to be heard in court, Sky paid him £1,500.

Next month, things should get easier for those wishing to switch from one provider to another - a different process from outright cancellation. In most cases, the new supplier will arrange the process for you, potentially saving you hours on the phone.

"It is vital that consumers are not let down by poor customer service and difficult procedures, or even deliberate obstruction, when they try to cancel their communications service," says Ofcom.

"Exiting a contract should be swift, easy and transparent, to allow consumers to exercise their choice and switch to another provider without undue hassle if they wish."

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