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Unexpected charges on your mobile phone bill – what to do

Richard Bayston

Richard Bayston
Oct 28, 2016

Mobile phone bills can be a nasty shock.

When you’re expecting the monthly tariff you agreed to (and budgeted for), the last thing you want to see is unexpected, unexplained charges. If you’re in that situation, is there anything you can do about it?

First, we need to figure out where the charges are coming from.


Was your phone stolen?

If your phone was stolen, and the theft happened after mid-2015, you’re only liable for the first £100.

A new industry code of practice caps your liability.

While that might seem like cold comfort, it’s a massive change from the days when bills of £5,000 or more were still the customer’s responsibility. If your phone was stolen, you don’t owe more than £100 - as long as you contact the phone company and the police within 24 hours of the phone going missing.



Has the phone company added charges you don’t recognise?

Phone companies sometimes add unexpected service charges to your account.

The phone company will have a list of charges and a guide to what they mean (here’s Vodafone’s, EE’s, 02’s and T-mobile’s).

It’s increasingly unlikely that your mobile phone company has added services without telling you. So if you’re seeing ‘service charges,’ it’s probably a third party.

You shouldn’t be seeing data roaming charges within the EU either; a change in the law this year slashed data roaming costs within the EU.

Outside the EU, data roaming can still blow a huge hole in your wallet.

What they might have added are charges for going over your data limits, or high-cost calls.

Calling premium rate numbers can drive up your bill fast. And so can sending texts containing email addresses in the ‘to’ field. That can happen automatically if you’ve synched up your account to your social media accounts, for instance.

Your phone provider will treat these like image texts and charge you accordingly.


Is it a scam charge?

One of the biggest causes of unexpected mobile phone bills is scam texts.

Some of these are intended to do what spam emails often do - to solicit personal information to be used later to steal from you.

That might mean pretending to be a message from iCloud, or from a bank or even from HMRC. When you give up your password or other information, it’s used to enter your account and steal data, money or your identity.

But plenty of scam SMS messages are there to part you from your cash in more straightforward ways, which is why they show up on your mobile phone bill. With opaque opt-in and opt-out procedures, they sign you up to expensive ‘premium rate services’ and charge you through the nose for the privilege.

The ‘services’ can be games, puzzles or ad campaigns, or they can be glamour photos or adult content.

Worse, the messages themselves cost you money to receive: the average is £4.50 per text, and you can receive several per day.

A similar scam is premium rate call-back lines, where you get a missed call from a number you don’t recognise.

Naturally, you call that number back, to find out who it was. When you do, your call is redirected to a premium rate line where calls can cost as much as £15.

In a variation on this scam, you get a voicemail that tells you that you’ve won a prize.

To find out what it is and claim it, all you must do is call another premium rate line - and the prize is often nothing more than a ringtone subscription that might be fraudulent anyway.

Finally, in some recent cases people receive calls from premium rate numbers that last just a second or two; their handset logs the call as missed, but their next bill shows a call made to that number, lasting as long as 12 hours and costing hundreds of pounds.

Make sure you reply STOP ALL to any scam text messages 


What can you do?

If your phone company has caught you out within the terms of the contract, there’s not much you can do except pay up and be more careful next time.

If your phone is stolen, tell the phone company and the police immediately - don’t leave it until the morning. Take the thieves off your tab as soon as possible.

If you’ve been the victim of a scam, you should start by texting ‘STOP ALL’ to the short code contained in the texts you’re receiving. That should stop all texts and services - and if it doesn’t, you’re not liable for any that are sent after you send the opt-out text. It doesn’t matter if that’s the opt-out the company prefers, or if they never told you one.

If you text ‘STOP ALL’ to them, they’re legally obliged to stop. Don’t delete the messages you have, though- you can use them to show that you were scammed.

Your next step is to contact the company behind the scam and complain.

Typically the company will show up in your bill, and you can Google them or find them at Companies House, then write to them and complain and demand a refund.

Next, contact your phone company. They know these scams happen and they should be taking more care to protect you. Tell them you’re not responsible for the scam part of your bill and ask them to stop requesting you to pay it.

After that, contact PhonePay Plus on 0300 3030020. They have the power to stop mobile phone frauds and to fine offenders.

If you get a phone call that seems suspicious, check the number before you call back. Use Google or PhonePay Plus’ number checker to make sure you won’t be charged.


Can you get your money back?

If you’ve been scammed, do you have to pay?

Your phone company will often tell you that you do. But they might even be in cahoots with the scammers.

Vodafone make a ‘small margin’ on premium rate texts. EE, 3 and O2 won’t confirm whether they do or not - but Vodafone is the worst firm for protecting its customers from scams.

Expect your phone company to wash its hands, pin the blame on you and come after you for the full amount.

A Spokesman Said can help. There’s mounting pressure on phone companies to do more in this situation, and publicising your case through A Spokesman Said can be an effective way to push your phone company to do the right thing.

Chase up the company that scammed you and demand a refund; consider threatening them with court action and ask PhonePay Plus to act too; they can fine companies up to £250,000, enough to get most scammers’ attention pretty fast. 

You can also complain to OFCOM, and go through your phone company’s internal complaint procedure.

If they still won’t refund you, consider taking your case to the Ombudsman. To do that, you’ll have to wait eight weeks with an unresolved complaint to your phone company, or get a deadlock letter that says you’ve exhausted their complaints procedure.

Whatever you do, make as much fuss as possible - companies hate negative publicity - and remember that you’re in the right!


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