Thursday, August 21, 2008

My BT hell (PART ONE)

A real story of appalling customer service, public utilities and spectacular profits for shareholders

One morning in August 2004 I woke up and proceeded downstairs for my habitual cup of tea. No matter the era of e-mail and instant communication, there still is an embedded feeling of contentment in checking your morning post. Except that my heart and guts jumped up in unison and then sank at the sight of my BT bill, a staggering £605.77.

Privatised in 1984 for £16.1 billion, British Telecom inherited a dominating position in the telecommunication business, only marginally troubled by minor competitors. "It soon provided spectacular profits for shareholders and bonanzas for its directors". Things took a turn for the worse due to a slew of reckless market moves and, at the turn of the century, BT debts amounted to £30 billion. Still their CEO managed to rake in a £2 million salary in 2002.

The position of dominance that BT enjoys is quite remarkable. In July 2003 I moved to a new flat expecting to be able to carry forward my subscription with the company I'd been with for years, Birmingham Cable (later Telewest). Without a single glitch I'd enjoyed the telephone service you'd expect, along with cable television and the internet. However, much to my surprise, Telewest told me they weren't going to be able to carry on as my providers because they owned none of the wires and connections in my new area. Monopoly of BT, it turned out. Little did I know at the time, but that fantastic quirk of fine Anglo-Saxon market economy/competition was about to give me a headache or two for the following twelve months.

Yet we didn’t start on the wrong foot. A few phone calls were enough to get my BT account effective within days. The lady on the phone was helpful enough to drag me through the plethora of options: evening plan, friendly plan, weekend plan and dead-of-the-night-plan. In the end I settled for 'BT Together Option 2'. I admit I'm not a meticulous shopper, but £17-50 a month base-rate seemed manageable to me. The crucial selling point was suggested by the customer assistant herself: a 'Call Level Charge' facility that -for the first 12 months of service - automatically disconnects your phone the moment your bill hits £50. "Nice and handy", I thought, "It'll help keep the budget under control". No surprises and no escalating bills. Soon afterwards, a letter from BT confirmed that my contract had become effective on 11 July 2003.

Much to my pleasure, the Call Level Charge facility showed its gnashers in October. Along with my quarterly bill, a letter duly reminded me that I had gone over the call level of £50. As customs, I rang BT to get my connection reinstated and all was fine. You can all but imagine my horror when the 2 August bill turned up on my doorstep as a foreteller of financial misery. It showed the itemised bill for May, June and July 2004, a period that should have been covered by the 'Call Level Charge' facility. That aside, the bill was burdened with a disproportionate amount of unsolicited '0909' numbers based in god knows which country, all premium-rate, at the flimsy cost of £1-50 a minute or more. Completely oblivious, I then started to find out more. I discovered that, since the turn of the century, tens of thousands of customers had been unwarily ripped off while quietly surfing online.

A piece on the BBC website shed some light: "These malicious bits of code sit there until you connect to your usual ISP and then silently disconnect you and phone a premium rate number instead. You still get internet connectivity, but it can cost £1-50 a minute. And you don’t realise what is going on until your next phone bill arrives". Fraudsters and rogue diallers started plaguing the internet since its onset, but the problem had crept to national scandal-levels by the time I was hit. Depressingly, I read that the defrauded customers wouldn’t stand a chance as BT would view it as your own problem and the calls were initiated from your number. But neither BT, nor the regulator had done a single thing to halt a problem that could be solved at the blink of an eye. Warnings were issued much too late and hardly a thing was done to regulate the 0909 lines. Yet in my case I wasn’t too worried. All I had to do was to ring up BT and show them that I should have been covered by their 'Call Level Charge'. No doubt it'd been all an oversight.

That’s when headaches began.


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