5 February 2024

My elderly mother, secret deregulated telecoms entrepreneur? : 2014 : Virgin Mobile

 “Just putting you through, dear.” Thousands of calls received each day demanding telephone numbers of businesses and individuals across the country. Shelves of phone directories and ‘Yellow Pages’ for every area of the UK. Banks of phones with operators wearing headsets sat at desks, staring into flickering screens. An impending deal with the Caribbean island of Nevis to ‘offshore’ customer service to a new call centre opened by the country’s premier where staff could be paid as little as £300 per month. My mother was doing all this?

From the early days of telephony, Britain’s ‘directory enquiries’ service had been a successful ‘public service’ available free by dialling ‘192’ to speak with a helpful human being until … Tory government dogma forced privatisation of the country’s phone system in 1984. You can tell Sid that Thatcher’s promise to Britain’s financially illiterate population that they could sit on their sofa and ‘get rich quick’ by merely purchasing a few shares in former public utilities was an outright lie. In 1991, users of ‘192’ started to be charged for the service, despite British taxpayers having contributed billions since 1912 to build the country’s public telegraphy system. Why were we now required to pay shareholders for the privilege of using a service that generations had already paid for?

A Labour government in 2003 opened up the previously singular ‘192’ service to ‘entrepreneurs’ who were permitted to charge an arm and a leg for a brief call to request a phone number. The government regulator did nothing to control this legalised extortion until 2015, by which time there were 200 competing private ‘directory enquiry’ services, all allocated phone numbers that started ‘118’. How on earth were the public expected to choose between so many companies charging varying prices for exactly the same information? What had once been a universal free ‘192’ service had been transformed into a costly logistical nightmare for consumers in the name of ‘market choice’. Unsurprisingly, the number of callers to directory services fell by 38% PER ANNUM after 2014.

Visiting my mother’s home, I saw no signs of a ‘directory enquiries’ start-up business in her tiny terraced house in the Home Counties. In fact, her landline phone rarely rang at all and quarterly bills I received listed few calls. Neither was there space in her postage-stamp back garden for a ’home office’ shed. No computer was visible in the house either because, in the 1980’s, her workplace accounts department’s upgrade from handwritten ledgers to huge concertinaed computer printouts had traumatised her, necessitating me to help interpret and reconcile them on our kitchen table. Despite this overwhelming lack of evidence, nothing could convince Virgin Mobile that my mother was not operating a ‘directory enquiries’ business on her phoneline … whose number happened to begin ‘0118’, as did all landlines in the Reading area. It started like this:

6 December 2014 @ 1600. I phoned my mother’s landline on my Virgin Mobile phone, its roaming function enabled, to let her know I had arrived safely in Spain. We spoke for 11 minutes.
7 December 2014 @ 2004. I phoned my mother again. We spoke for 3 minutes.
9 December 2014 @ 1841. I phoned my mother again. We spoke for 13 minutes.
14 December 2014 @ 1708. I phoned my mother again. We spoke for 16 minutes.

I tried to use my mobile phone later that week and found my account had been suspended. I logged in online and was surprised to find that Virgin Mobile believed my maximum monthly credit limit had already been exceeded. The four calls to my mother were bizarrely billed as “Roaming Directory Enquiries” with amounts of £30.15, £9.30, £36.90 and £44.76 respectively (plus VAT at 20%). I had regularly called my mother from abroad, where I often worked, and never encountered this problem previously. Her phone number had not changed. Evidently, a fault must recently have been introduced into Virgin Mobile’s billing system. I expected it to be quickly fixed once I explained the mistake. For heaven’s sake, who would call a ‘directory enquiries’ number and talk for 16 minutes?

I was so so wrong. I am sufficiently ancient to recall a long-gone era when ‘customer service’ meant listening to a client’s problem and then doing the utmost to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. I am evidently a dinosaur. Call a helpline now and you might speak with someone in the Philippines whose purpose is to never admit corporate liability for any mistake, to direct you to a non-existent web page and to read a lengthy on-screen script (pre-approved by lawyers) that has zero pertinence to your issue. Having been a customer of Virgin Media for more than a decade, I had already suffered pain trying to get the simplest problems fixed. On one occasion, my wife became so angry with its ‘customer service’ that she had demanded the mobile number of its departmental boss and, phoning it, he answered only to explain he was presently aboard his yacht. How the other half live!

I persevered anyway, phoning Virgin’s customer service to complain twice on 18 December and again on 5 January, calls for which I was charged £12.62 because I was abroad. I was attempting to avoid my impending 6 January invoice being mistakenly inflated. I was lied to, told that my query would be investigated and I would be called back within 24 hours. I was disbelieved, told that I must have forgotten that I had used ‘directory enquiries’ to call my mother, even though her landline is ex-directory. I was fobbed off, told that the issue could not be investigated until Virgin had dispatched my next monthly invoice. I was told I could pay the overcharged amounts immediately so as to restore my credit limit, enabling me to make further calls. I was even told that, because my mother's UK phone number started with '0118', she MUST be a ‘directory enquiries’ service. Remarkably, one customer services person admitted that a previous customer services person I had spoken to had lied to me when having promised to resolve the problem.

Virgin’s invoice arrived and included the overcharges, forcing me to submit an online complaint on 9 January. I received an automated confirmation but no response. I sent the same complaint by letter to Virgin’s complaints department in Swansea. I received no response. I was forced to let Virgin take the £145 overcharge from my bank account or my mobile service would never be resumed.

Now I was unable to call my mother for fear of incurring further crazy charges. Though she had a mobile phone my sister had bought for her, she habitually left it in a drawer uncharged. I added cash to my Skype account but 99% of attempts to call her landline failed as I was told her number did not exist, had been disconnected or was permanently ‘busy’, none of which were true. I had to resort to using phone booths in Spanish internet caf├ęs or calling my sister’s mobile when I knew she was visiting my mother, neither of which enabled frequent communication. To my frail mother, it must have seemed like sudden ‘radio silence’ from her eldest son.

By March 2015, having received no response from Virgin, I registered a formal complaint with ‘CISAS’, the organisation arbitrating customer complaints against Virgin Mobile. In April, it responded that “we have received confirmation from the communications provider that they are settling your claim in full” and it “now has 20 working days to provide you with everything you claimed”. That should have been the end of the four-month affair … except that Virgin Mobile did not pay!

You might imagine CISAS would chase Virgin Mobile for payment on behalf of the customer. You would be wrong. My subsequent correspondence with CISAS to inform that Virgin had still not paid was met with indifference: “We note the points and concerns you have raised and will be contacting the company. We will revert back to you promptly…" Except it never did.

In June 2015, I wrote to CISAS again: “You have failed to “revert back to [me] promptly”, as stated in your correspondence below. It is more than a month since I sent my e-mail to you noting that Virgin Mobile had failed to execute any of the agreed remedies from April 2015. It is more than three months since I submitted my complaint about Virgin Mobile to CISAS. You have failed to address the questions raised in my e-mail of 13 May. I continue to be making expenditures as a direct result of Virgin Mobile failing to remedy the billing problem I initially raised with them in December 2014…”

By July 2015, having received no response, I lodged a complaint about CISAS’ inaction to a related organisation named ‘IDRS’. Although I had been informed in March by CISAS that Virgin Mobile had agreed to settle my claim in full, it appeared that, after refusing to pay, Virgin wished to open up a new attack front on my complaint which it suddenly wanted to pursue to the bitter end. There followed a completely bizarre, intense correspondence in which I had to provide a detailed ‘defence’ to Virgin’s accusations in correspondence with an IDRS employee named “Jean-Marie Sadio BA (Hons) Bsc ( Hons) ACIarb” [sic].

Tellingly, Virgin Mobile now claimed to have sent me a letter dated 10 March 2015 in which it had mentioned the value of compensation I was seeking, a value I had not calculated until nine days later when my complaint to CISAS was submitted. Perhaps Virgin’s litigator had been dozing during Law School lectures, daydreaming that ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ was a reality movie. The reason I had never received Virgin’s letter was because it was evidently a work of post factum fiction.

Another of Virgin’s fictions in March was its assurance that it had “take[n] action to prevent future overcharges” when I called my mother’s landline. Strange because a short test call I made to my mother on 4 April 2015 was still charged at the exorbitant ‘directory enquiries’ rate. At any point during this gigantic waste of time, all it needed was for one of Virgin’s thousands of employees to have called my mother’s phone number in order to verify that it was not in fact a ‘directory enquiries’ service. I am certain my mother would have been happy to give the Virgin staffer a forthright piece of her mind, had they requested the phone number of the nearest pizza takeaway.

Happy ending? Not really. Later in 2015, I did eventually receive the compensation amount from Virgin Mobile I had been promised in March, but only after this ridiculously long and exhausting struggle. What a way to run a railroad!

However, what was not returned to me was the ability to call my mother’s home phone from my mobile without incurring further massive expenses. Skype was still rejecting 99% of my calls to her number, despite attempts every few days. In Spain, the waiting time to install a home landline was more than a year. As a result, between December 2014 and the tragic episode when my mother contracted COVID whilst waiting to be discharged from hospital after a successful minor operation then died at home in March 2021, my ability to communicate with her from overseas had been reduced to almost zero.

In my mind, Virgin Mobile looms large over memories of the final years of my mother’s life. In this brave new world where global communication is supposed to have been made so straightforward, nothing can replace the loss of personal contact I suffered during her last days. COVID travel restrictions conspired against my presence during her final months on Earth and at her funeral.

[Correspondence from Virgin, CISAS and IDRS not reproduced here due to long 'confidentiality' warning paragraphs]

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