Phone networks are taking advantage of post-Brexit deregulation to baffle customers into racking up large roaming bills on EU holidays, consumer rights champion Martin Lewis has warned.
At the end of June, a range of consumer protections that had been introduced after Brexit expired. As a result, phone networks are no longer required to send customers a message with pricing details when they begin roaming, nor to cap the maximum data roaming fees that can be charged monthly. Networks also no longer need to provide protections against inadvertent roaming.
In an age of data-hungry smartphones, consumers can build up huge bills in a matter of minutes without even being aware they are using their phone at all, as apps connect to the internet to check for updates after a flight or during a journey.
Lewis, who leads the consumer group MoneySavingExpert.com, warned that mobile networks had shown that they could not be trusted to self-regulate and since Brexit, some operators had pledged not to reintroduce roaming fees, only to renege on those promises. The only option was for the government to step in, he said.
“I’ve no faith in mobile firms to self-regulate. When we left the EU, they promised not to reintroduce European roaming charges … yet most of the big networks have broken that promise,” he said.
“So our report calls on Ofcom to not trust voluntary promises – we need to reintroduce the formal, compulsory consumer protections.”
As well as imposing large top-line costs, mobile networks were taking advantage of ambiguities that individual consumers are rarely aware of. Many limit daily roaming fees, for instance, but each defines a “day” differently, with some counting the period of 24 hours after first use, but others simply ending it at 11:59pm UK time, regardless of where the traveller actually is or when they first used the data. Worse, the operators rarely define their terms in texts sent on arrival in foreign countries.
That means a traveller who arrived in Greece, which is two hours ahead of the UK, at 1.58am could be charged a full day’s roaming for a minute of phone use before their allowance ticked over, without ever being explicitly warned that that was the case.
“We need to ban a daily roaming fee charged for use ‘up to 11.59pm’ without even mentioning in which time zone,” Lewis said.
“Instead, we recommend all providers must define a roaming ‘day’ as a 24-hour period from first use, clearly explain that in the arrival text, and alert customers at least an hour before the daily charges end.”
As well as campaigning for greater regulation of mobile phone roaming charges, Lewis has been heavily involved in the ongoing cost of living crisis, warning Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak that whoever becomes the next prime minister, they stand to inherit a country on the brink of a “national financial cataclysm” as a result of soaring energy bills.
“The winter is going to be bleak,” he said. “I believe unless action is taken we are facing a potential national financial cataclysm,” which may require the provision of “heat banks”, “warm spaces in public buildings” such as libraries and leisure centres where people who can’t afford to heat their homes can shelter. The energy price cap is expected to rise in October, and then again in January, to more than £3,300 a year, from its current level of £1,971.