Slammed: Companies stealing your telephone number
Watch out! Telephone companies can take, replace, steal or remove your number, leaving you with few options, little recourse to complain, and in the dark as to how this can happen.
We live in a connected world, so the experience of not having broadband or a phone may leave you stranded; socially, economically and emotionally. First world problem? For sure. However, many of us work with colleagues and clients via the electronic pulse and in our specialised towers of employment that line defines not just the difference between a palace and poverty, but in some cases our very definition of home.
On Friday the 3rd of November 2013 our broadband cut out and we started receiving a few wrong number calls to our landline. Asking the lost callers to try calling their friends mobile and to give us a call to try and get to the bottom of the problem, we found that theintended call recipients weren’t receiving any calls to their landline at all. Worse still, a quick call to our number told us we had been disconnected!
Quick off the mark, the other family contacted their provider (EE) who sent an engineer around to fix the line. From Wednesday the 13th of November we no longer received *their* calls. However our phone line no longer worked at all, and we still hadn’t been reconnected. Calls to BT (our provider) hadn’t helped matters. As it stood they were looking into the matter and would get back to us in a few days.
There was however the possibility that we could lose the telephone number we’d had for over nine years if they couldn’t sort the problem shortly.
Slammed? Unauthorised number change
What caused this? On the 21st of October someone nearby changed providers and a mistake was made at the exchange where the line from our house connected to their number. Surely, there are some sort of failsafes in place to ensure that providers can’t swap and switch the lines without some permissions of the people involved?
It’s standard practice for letters and emails to be sent to all affected parties with enough time for everyone to respond.
For some reason no correspondence was sent to us about this at the time. While a letter did arrive on the 12th of November (a day after we told by BT that one had been sent in October, and well after the change had already occurred) to an old work address, this didn’t explain the lack of an email notification since we’ve received emails from BT before and since.
Being a telephone company you’d expect to be called about this matter on either a home, work or mobile telephone number (either automated or in person). I’ve regularly received calls from BT’s sales departments. What went wrong?
BT Customer Service
Since our phone line cut out on the 3rd of November we’d spoken to hundreds of BT telephone operators, logging over 50 hours of calls and have had to explain the situation over and over again. The response was that BT were sorry but that they couldn’t help because when they check the line to our house it’s listed as going to the other party’s number, and that it is now held by another company.
To their credit the apologetic people we got on the line tried their best and helped us out with BT Wifi accounts so that we get internet at locations around London. The larger problem seemed to be that the different departments weren’t communicating with each other and cancelling each others’ orders based on insufficient information, when the information they required was on some other system or somehow not available.
About a week into our constant support calls we were given a direct line to someone who attempted to get a grip on the situation (which thankfully cut down the amount of time we had to repeat ourselves). By the 27th of November several attempts to schedule our line to be reconnected had been cancelled because the engineering department had seen that on the system our line has been allocated to someone else – when the truth was that at that moment our line was completely dead!
No one, to our knowledge, had yet to go to the exchange and actually check to see that our line was not in use or started the process to physically reconnect us. So despite being promised that on Friday the 22nd we’d be reconnected, this didn’t happen. We were then promised that we’d be reconnected on Monday the 25th. This too didn’t happen.
Frustrated, we tried to go higher, and giving up on the phone support rigmarole we did the English thing and penned a pair of stern missives directly to BT management (CC’d to various complaints departments) and Ofcom.
Ofcom and steps forward.
Early on, we had been in contact with Ofcom regarding why this had happened. The process of this complaint is quite lengthy, and despite being generally happy with BT, the constant compounding of minor mistakes was starting to add up to a hard complaint. Explaining this in a letter we were emphatic that BT bore a poor comparison to EE in the way its competitors had been aggressively proactive in not only acquiring a new customer, but removing one of theirs. Talk about corporate bullying!
During our phone calls to EE to ask them nicely if they could please fix the issue affecting both us and their own customer, EE showed their true colours; not denying that ‘they didn’t care whether another party could make free calls one on their customer’s lines’; that since we weren’t an EE customer they weren’t interested; that ‘EE doesn’t have a complaints department’, and generally that they couldn’t care less about anything.
Closing the letter with a rousing finish we suggested that while this was a very poor show for EE, it would make a good story for BT if only BT were remotely as effective. The fact remained that the EE customer in this sad tale had a working telephone line and the long term BT customer did not.
The Call to Adventure
Within a few days we received a call from one of BTs crack problem solvers who reassured us that we’d get daily updates on the progress of their investigations. Things progressed slowly but we weren’t given any false hope either. Finally, by the 2nd of December, a wonderful engineer came to the house and investigated the line using a myriad of delicate tools. He went outside to check something in the box… and we had the line back on!
Sadly broadband wasn’t restored but this was a major step forward.
Our BT problem solver investigated and informed us that when our line was taken by EE they stripped the broadband from the line and it would take a while to re-establish it. Also further investigations had to be made to see exactly what the issue was.
On the 10th of December our problem solver had investigated further and informed us that it would be some days further before we would be reconnected to broadband. Her research into our case so far had turned up that, according to the system, a letter was sent to the address BT had on record (which unfortunately was a work address that I had since left). The only reason they had that address was because I’d had a new router delivered there at some point in the past.
But again, according to my old employer, they hadn’t received anything before November the (well after BT was supposed to have sent a notification and more in line with when we originally started complaining about not receiving any notification).
The final communication we received was that, in order to protect ourselves from being slammed by nefarious companies, it is our responsibility to make sure our details are up to date. We were informed that all this could have been avoided if our correspondence address had been correct on BT’s system. Pushing a bit, we finally got a firm date of the 16th when we were promised our broadband would be live.
After pinning our hopes on so many dates during this process we were trepidatious that this time everything would be fixed. However true to BT’s word, by midday we were connected to the web and ready to get back to our working online lives.
In the weeks that followed we kept and eye on what happened to our broadband, never really feeling like this was the end of the story. So far all we’ve noticed is that the broadband is a lot slower than it was (we can’t play HD iplayer) but other than that things have remained pretty smooth into 2014.
BT offered us a bit of goodwill compensation for the disruption, maintaining that they didn’t do anything wrong themselves though they were sorry that we had got slammed by EE. We haven’t even bothered trying to complain to EE after our terrible experiences with them up to now. It’s remarkable how little they care about their customers. During the weeks that we had their customers number, we could have been on premium numbers 24/7 and run conference calls to all our overseas friends. Moreover, their own customer was without a line an extended period of time.
what makes or breaks a company a
nd public outcry seems to be only
real way to get the major providers
to change their ways
How do we take on companies like this? Our complaint with Ofcom is still ongoing and we’ve been told that the process can take several months. Since we’ve got our own service back, the sense of urgency has subsided.
Customer complaints should be what makes or breaks a company and public outcry seems to be only real way to get the major providers to change their ways and implement better processes to safeguard their customers’ services. BT’s customer service did come out ahead of the EE and the other providers we have spoken to in the past on unrelated matters, however, the disconnection between services, lack of knowledge and the pointless requirement of the repetition of detail is a clear area for improvement.
Why can’t the first person who takes all our details and raises a support query note all the relevant information to BT satisfaction in the first instance? Why do we have to constantly repeat the issue, before being transferred to another well-meaning but incapable support operator. They had captured the right support criteria on the first call surely they’d have enough information to transfer you to the right person?
As it is you have to keypad through various departmental gateways to speak to a ‘technical’ operator versus a ‘billing’ operator.
The online problem flowcharts are near useless for any real issues, although I can see that probably weed out a bit of the ‘it isn’t plugged in’ sort of issues. Why can’t they have a truly effective problem tree that can actually direct you to a more useful solution?
Despite all this, we do like BT. They’re a bit slow but they do seem to employ people that genuinely care and try to help. Anecdotally, we’ve heard that they’re outsourcing more and more specialist jobs to undertrained contractors. Long term employees are being driven out with redundancy deals before their pension contracts have to be paid out in full.
Their replacements, while well-meaning, are neophyte contractors whose minor slip-ups often lead to major mistakes, who then don’t have the experience or knowledge to fix; “Sorry mate, I’m just following the instructions on the card, you’ll have to wait three days for the expert/exchange/underground team to come out”. (Note: do not ever fall for this, always speak to the manager, and get them to fix it on the day.) A depressing development as it may mean that issues like ours will become more common.
So how do we combat this?
One issue is that people are probably frustrated by poorly performing support/complaints procedures. EE apparently doesn’t have one, which bodes evil for both their own customers and those they affect, and BT should be encouraged to blind test their own procedures from a customer’s point of view at regular intervals.
But the issue of how to stop companies slamming or stealing your line is more complex, because the companies in question don’t care.
What to do if you get your phone line slammed:
Make sure your details are up to date.
In an era of paperless billing; account updates by text; automated phone calls, and online everything it beggars belief that companies rely on postal notification of major changes to your service. Over the last two decades we’ve been gradually weaned off postal communication by companies. Why don’t they take a leaf from their own book and send an email, text, and phone call?
Slamming as a practice
If you have been a victim of slamming do contact Ofcom and register a complaint. Better yet, blog it and get as many of your friends to repost it as possible. Bad press seems to be only thing that incentivises any of these companies to do better.
If you can contact a local politician who can push for harsher penalties for corporate malfeasance, do so. Our elected officials are a powerful resource for your voice to be heard against capital bullying.
If an issue arises
Make a note of the time and date of every call you make to a complaints department: who you speak to, what they promise, and what they say the problem is. If later on you require compensation, then you have a clear timeline and basis for compensation.
Use the press. A lot of people are fed up of terrible service and poor reaction to real issues. You pay for a service and if you’re not getting your money’s worth, get angry.
Have a back-up plan.
Key resources need to be thought out. As I write this parts of the UK are flooded and a variety of other storm-based calamities are affecting Northern areas. If you rely on something, make sure you have an alternative is something goes wrong. Seems like obvious advice but it’s remarkable how often we forget.
Things go wrong all the time. UK life can be a constant barrage of ill-timed annoyances and expensive mistakes (often not your fault) that can mess up months of your life. As the old adage goes: this too shall pass, but that’s no reason to get sulky, passive and fatalistic. Put a big smile on your face, pick up a large (metaphorical) brick and smash through the obstacles that are stopping you putting a posse together and calling out shoddy business where it sleeps.
Images: Craig Garner, Thom Weerd, Justin Leibow