Friday, August 22, 2008

My BT hell (PART TWO)

Anglo-Saxon free market? It doesn't come better than BT

As I finished work on Friday 6 August I walked back home confident the matter was going to be sorted out there and then. Didn’t Maggie tell us real power rests with the customer? I dialled BT helpline on 150, at 5:15 pm. Two hours and a swirl of useless phone calls later I was left fuming. The events unravelled as follows.

Customer assistant Paul puts me through customer rep Vinnie at 'Credit Management' department. After hanging on to the tune of 'our customer representatives are very busy', Vinnie pops up again only to tell me that he's going to call back "in a second". Almost two hours are spent picking my nose but no trace of Vinnie calling back. It's up to me to grab the phone again and put up with the charming phone queues. It's twenty-to-eight when Kerrie finally answers the phone and I explain that not only was I stood up by their Call Level Charge facility, but also by her colleagues who promised me they'd call back within 'minutes'. She transfers me to "Call level" department where David promises me they will indeed call me back the same evening. Another lie, it turns out.

In fact, forget the same evening, Saturday whizzes through without a single trace of BT's kind and irreplaceable "customer service". The phone doesn’t ring and their promises of a speedy call-back look increasingly hollow. I spend a few hours mulling over the previous day and the abstruse explanations given by those finely trained BT customer reps regarding my £605.77 bill and my call-level facility going AWOL right when I needed it. Paul talked about "the system sometimes picking up customers with good payment history. If it shows they've always paid on time then it removes the 'Call Level' cap". Yes. I know what you're thinking. I'm thinking that too. What a lame load of bollocks. You can say whatever about my customer history but not exactly that I am punctual in paying my bills.

Totally unaware of how Premium Rate scams work, Customer adviser no. 2, Vinnie, was quite adamant that I had made those Premium Rate calls. When I retorted that "it's not true and BT are making a mint out of this" his reply was that "no, the money we make through those Premium rate numbers goes to aid organisations". Nice to know BT does its bit for charity with other people's dosh. But we'll come back to it.

Customer assistant David came up with an unspecific "letter that was sent on 24 May" informing me of the withdrawal of the "Call Level Charge" service. It goes without saying that I never received it. In any case, I find it striking that such a crucial service I had subscribed to can be withdrawn arbitrarily, by post and with an ordinary letter that can easily get lost in the way. All this -above all - two months before the expiration of the "Call Level Charge" facility. More, as I take another painful glance at the itemised section of my monstrous bill, I discover that the £50 limit that the "Call Level Charge" service was supposed to cover had already been reached BEFORE 24 May, which is to say even before the letter was sent out! That would make the letter itself completely redundant in the matter. Reassured by yet more evidence that it's all due to BT's negligence I brace myself for more phone queues. Is there a "customer rep" that would simply talk to me? As the weekend draws to a close, it doesn’t look like it.

In the evening of Monday 8 August, I am finally contacted by a 'manager' who introduces himself as Mr Emtab. His version of the facts is the most extraordinary yet. He stammers that "the Call Level Charge service was withdrawn on 24 May on the basis that I had reached the beginning of my quarterly bill". In other words, his (or BT's) way of calculating a 12 months service simply neglects the fact that 12 months have not elapsed at all. In May, in fact, we were a mere 9 months into the contract! To my protestations, and my plea to the most basic maths, Emtab responds with his loop-like formula that "the beginning of the quarterly bill is the equivalent of running the course of 12 months".

Imagine you rent a place by signing a 12-month contract. 9 months into the tenancy there comes the landlord with his new tenant and he sends you packing on the grounds that you've entered the last quarter. Now, that isn’t the product of the village idiot's imagination, that's BT. Pap like that is the equivalent of being called a total retard. They may as well send you a piece of paper with BT logo on it calling you dim. Five customer assistants and five different explanations show a lot about BT's contempt for the public. But if Mr Emtab's absurd version is to be believed, then the other four customer reps have all been talking shite. And that's the worst aspect, the fact that BT would rather hold on to the most twisted, daft excuses and take you for a complete idiot than simply apologise and write off a messed-up bill.

I submit my complaint to regulator Icstis, but at no stage will I hear from them. Another instance that makes the customer feel a complete nobody. In fairness though they're probably mega-busy handling the "tsunami of complaints", 10,000 a week, from fellow "people who discovered these unwanted extras on their bills".

On 10 August 2004 I forward my official complaint to BT. Amongst three pages of bitterness, I include:
"All customer representatives and advisers from BT I spoke to, either last year or on my recent queries told me that the "Call Level Charge" service would cover the first 12 months of my contract. In which case, at BT you supply misleading and deceitful information. Leaving aside the inaccurate promises that 'a manager would ring you back', BT marketed and sold me the "Call Level Charge" service on the basis that it would cover 12 months. And not, 3 quarters and then be withdrawn at the beginning of the fourth quarter! They never said it would cover 9, 10, 11 or even 11 and ½ months. They expressly stated 12 months and did so on all occasions barring Mr Emtab, the last person I spoke to. As such, the explanation that the "Call Level Charge" was withdrawn in May because it was 'the beginning of the last quarter' is inconsistent, unacceptable to customers and, quite frankly, insulting. Of course I will pay the share of the bill that I fairly owe, but my request to BT is to withdraw the £460 charge (£392 plus VAT generated by the Premium Rate calls) out of the 2 August 2004 bill. Those calls were unsolicited, unasked for and fraudulent. But, above all, the "Call Level Charge" service I had agreed to with BT in order to safeguard my account totally failed to come into practice".

It took me hours to lay down my letter in a way that would illustrate my case as best I could. BT completely ignored its content. Five weeks later they answered with an impersonal form/letter that was obviously being sent all around the country to those customers incensed at their stratospheric phone bills. BT's was basically a disclaimer saying that "the numbers have been dialled from your computer equipment in use at your home on the date(s) in question" and that "BT cannot prevent customers' equipment from accepting downloads being offered to them via the Internet. BT has no way of knowing which sites are bona fide and which sites do not comply with the regulators' guidelines".

"If the user of the computer instigates calls, whether intentionally or otherwise, BT has no option other than to connect the call", "[BT] cannot make a judgement on whether the originator wishes to be connected". Nevermind thousands of disputed bills on file with BT and Icstis show systemic repeat calls and are irrefutable evidence of an ongoing scam. How can BT assume it's not dodgy? The letter concluded with a matter-of-fact request for "any outstanding monies" to be paid in the next six weeks. What about my detailed case about the "Call Level Charge" and the pap offered by five different staff members of their reputable organisation? No mention whatsoever.

Obviously, BT couldn’t care less.
The Trading Standard Institute (TSI) stepped in the ongoing dispute by releasing an estimate of the financial cost of premium rate fraud. While BT admitted "it was costing UK consumers around £8 million each year", TSI chief executive Rob Gainsford remarked that "it's like a sickness that is reaching epidemic proportions - and we are struggling to contain it". The Guardian reported a barrister's view calling into account the regulators and phone firms. "Critics have accused Icstis of failing fully to use its powers to cut off those premium rate internet lines", said Richard Colbey, adding that a "cursory and obvious check with computer security firms" would give out simple information about the nature of service abusers.

"It should be relatively simple for BT and its rivals automatically to notify customers when such number is dialled, or bar them except to anyone who specifically requests access. They elect not to do so and make profits from that failure. A contractual term allowing the levying of premium charges in these circumstances might be one in which the words of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations (UTCCR) is 'contrary to the requirements of good faith [in that] causes a significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations…to the detriment of the consumer'".

In the meantime the clinking sound of cash pouring in could be heard at BT's and friends' headquarters. As I discussed my problem with my friends, one of them, Max, timidly came forward owning up to having been prey of a similar scam. "My PC was getting increasingly slow. There was obviously something wrong with it, a bug or something. I also noticed 'pop-ups' were multiplying. It all became clear when my next phone bill came through carrying over £70 worth of unsolicited premium rate numbers". I wasn’t alone, then, and god knows how many others. "Wait before you pay Max!" we all turned. "You may get away with it, you have a case". But too late, "Nahh, guys, c'mon it's just £70 at the end of the day, and I don’t want any hassle". Max had most certainly a point. And if you think that's the view of the greatest majority, BT would brand them all dream customers and keep making a fortune.

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