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Our reporter’s fight to cancel a mobile internet contract in lockdown

Should I have known better? Yes. But after several tries at cancelling my EE account, I went for the nuclear option.

I logged into my bank account and stopped my £32 monthly direct debit.

My dongle – a small device that provides wifi connection and allows me to file stories from remote locations – had served little purpose in lockdown. 

So it was a relief that it would no longer bleed a chunky sum from my bank balance each month. Or so I thought.

We have received dozens of emails from telecoms customers who have had letters ignored and calls unanswered, and have generally been given the run-around by firms who can’t let go

In May, I received a letter from the telecoms firm saying I owed £195. Immediately realising my mistake – and fearing it would have an adverse impact on my credit score – I paid it.

But shortly afterwards I received another letter, this time from debt collectors Arvato, saying I owed £225, which included fees for their services.

I checked my credit score, and to my horror it had plummeted from around 900 to 430 – catastrophic news for an aspiring first-time buyer.

This had to be fixed. Again, I scoured EE’s website. Surely there would be a quick and easy way to close my account online? But there wasn’t.

Again, I tried calling customer services, but an automated message asked for my EE mobile number, which I didn’t have, in order to put me through to an operator.

The only solution was to contact the press office. To their credit, I soon received a call from a customer services agent, who agreed to close my account and call off the debt collectors.

Obviously I should not have stopped my direct debit. But it appears I am not the only frustrated customer driven to despair by firms who make it implausibly difficult to cancel accounts.

Telecoms firms are serial offenders. Ofcom guidance states that customers should be able to cancel contracts in ‘real-time’, such as by speaking to an agent over the phone or online, or in ‘non-real time’, such as by letter, email or via an online account.

But Money Mail has received dozens of emails from customers who have had letters ignored and calls unanswered, and have generally been given the run-around by firms who can’t let go.

Miles' contract with EE was for a dongle device that provides wifi connection and allowed him to file stories from remote locations . But it had served little purpose in lockdown (stock photo)

Miles’ contract with EE was for a dongle device that provides wifi connection and allowed him to file stories from remote locations . But it had served little purpose in lockdown (stock photo)

Some of you also resorted to stopping direct debits, resulting in threatening letters from debt collectors and tumbling credit scores. 

Many are trying to cut back on unnecessary expenditure in lean times, only for shoddy customer service to get in the way. And you haven’t had the luxury of a press office to sort it all out.

Virgin Media is responsible for most of your complaints. This may be because it doesn’t use the Openreach network. 

To switch between providers that do, such as BT and Sky, you need only to contact your new provider, which will arrange the transfer.

But to switch between Virgin and BT you must contact Virgin to cancel your contract with it, rather than simply asking BT to perform the switch. This appears to be causing problems.

In one month alone, we have received eight complaints from readers regarding difficulties they have had when trying to cancel their accounts.

Madeline Skinner, 75, says she transferred to BT in July and emailed Virgin to cancel her account. This was acknowledged. 

But she says she is still receiving ‘threatening’ letters warning that if she doesn’t pay her bills it will hurt her credit rating. The latest demand was for £181, she says. But the pensioner, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, says she cannot speak to anyone in person.

She adds that she has also written six recorded letters to various departments, but has only had one reply, which simply said the firm was trying to resolve the problem. 

EE said its customers can access their accounts online, in-store, over the phone or via its app

EE said its customers can access their accounts online, in-store, over the phone or via its app

She says: ‘Virgin sent me an email to say ‘We’re sorry to be losing you’ and then kept sending me all these bills. I’ve never owed any money before, but now these bills keep going up and I’m just hitting my head against a brick wall.’

Telecoms firms are not the only culprits, however. It took a month for Carol Iddon, 60, to cancel her Halifax Ultimate Reward account, which cost £17. 

When she first tried, by visiting her local branch in July, she was told staff were working from home due to the pandemic and was given a number to call. 

She says she did so several times a week only for the line to go dead after five minutes.

Carol returned to the branch and was given an alternative number, which produced the same result.

It was only after her husband, Nicholas, 66, spent around two hours rooting around online that he managed to make the change.

He says: ‘This is all from a bank that is spending a fortune on TV adverts saying that they are there for us in these trying times.’

In September, insurers were reprimanded by the Financial Conduct Authority for making it hard for customers to cancel automatic renewals and switch to a better deal.

Customers have also had problems cancelling subscriptions that have been rendered worthless during lockdown, such as TV sports packages or gym memberships. 

Consumer law specialist Gary Rycroft says the law may be on your side if you have a subscription that you haven’t been able to use. 

He adds: ‘The legal principle of ‘frustration of contract’ is the basis of your right to seek a full refund. This applies where goods or services can’t be delivered for reasons not anticipated when the contract was agreed.’

An EE spokesman says customers can access their accounts online, in-store, over the phone or via its app. 

He adds: ‘If a customer wants to cancel a contract, they’ll need to speak to an adviser to ensure they pass the security questions used to protect accounts.’

A Virgin spokesman says: ‘Any customer who wishes to cancel their contract has the opportunity to do so by phone, and we provide clear advice to customers on how they can do this on our website.’

A spokesman for Halifax says: ‘Throughout the pandemic our customers have been able to switch accounts online and via phone, and during the lockdown earlier this year, our branches remained open for essential banking needs.

‘We were sorry to hear that Mrs Iddon was unhappy that her request couldn’t be completed in branch at the time and she had to make the switch online. We are currently investigating whether we could have done more to help.’

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I paid the price for ditching Talk Talk 

By MARK PALMER  

The emails started to arrive at the beginning of September. They were upbeat, positive, breezy, but filled me with dread – because trying to communicate with TalkTalk, which, perversely, is in the communications business, makes one want to live in a cave and never talk to anyone again.

By way of background, I left TalkTalk five years ago and switched to BT, but was allowed to keep my email address at no additional cost. Until now.

The emails told me my old account was to be ‘deactivated’. I replied, but its subsequent correspondence made little sense. 

And then, suddenly, I was not able to receive my emails on either my laptop or mobile phone.

It was time to speak to someone at TalkTalk directly.

After struggling to find help, I was told that in order to continue using my email I would have to pay £5 a month or £50 a year. So I duly coughed up the £50.

I did start receiving my emails but was unable to send any.

It was only after Money Mail sent an email to TalkTalk on my behalf, that I received a call from the chief executive’s office.

A lady called Rachel explained that the £50 had to be paid to ‘keep the system going for non-customers of TalkTalk’, by which she meant ‘security features’ and ‘maintenance’.

And there has been one further sting in the tail. When my mobile bill arrived, I noticed that I had been charged £17.49 for a 31-minute call to 0871 222 3311.

All calls and texts are normally free on my tariff. So I dialled the number again to see who on earth I had called for such an exorbitant fee.

‘Hello, there. Welcome to TalkTalk…’   

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