We regularly get asked “can you get me out of this contract” and our response is that it depends. If you are not sure whether you are in contract or not with your telecoms supplier, or you’d like some tips to help protect yourself before signing any new deals – here is a guide.
There is an onus on the telecoms supplier to prove the contract end dates. Just because the system says so does not mean it is correct. There could be data entry errors, or it could be deliberately misleading you. For example one of our clients was told their contract had renewed two days before they enquired about it. It could be a coincidence, but they could offer no proof of that being the renewal date. Reasonable proof would be a call recording or a copy of the original signed document or e-contract.
If your telecoms supplier refuses to provide that then it probably has something to hide. For example, one major supplier insisted for six months that the customer was in a contract but would offer no proof. It then claimed it was done over the phone but couldn’t provide a copy. Eventually a letter to the chairman’s office resolved the matter and they were released.
There are a number of rules laid down by Ofcom to protect consumers and businesses with less than ten employees. This should be higher – how many 11 person businesses employ a qualified contracts person or company lawyer? The protection bans automatic rollover of contracts and provides the customer the ability to cancel contracts because of prices rises and/or failures to offer promised broadband speeds.
But some suppliers will try to find ways round these protections. On automatic rollovers we have seen contracts saying “tick this box to keep tariffs after contract end date”. There is no mention that by ticking this box you are agreeing to an automatic renewal. But that’s exactly what you are doing – you are renewing for that same term again. Effectively the telecoms supplier is getting you to waive your rights by ticking the box.
Others obscure price rises by only publishing it on the website or hiding it in the small print on invoices. Ofcom has ruled that you can opt out of a contract if the price rises – as long as you give notice within 30 days of being told. Therefore, if you miss the notification you miss the chance to cancel.
There are other some other tricks to watch out for including:
– Automatically restarting your contract if you change or add something;
– Adding new services that have their own contract so end dates never align, meaning cancellation is almost impossible as you’ll never be out of contract on all your services at the same time;
– Having different terms for each element of the contract. For example, having calls for two years and in small print the lines are for five years;
– Changing the Terms and Conditions – but only stating this on the website;
– False inducements to purchase – for example ‘we promise to save you money’ but when you get your invoices there is no saving.
Also, check your notice period. Whilst they may not be as difficult as “only on the third Thursday before Pentecost” there can be great variations from 30 days to six months. The worst we have seen is one requiring three years’ notice! And look at the penalties you may have to pay if you cancel early. If the company has given you a free installation in return for a three-year contract and you cancel after one year then it is perfectly reasonable to ask you pay for the installation. Again, small businesses are protected by Ofcom rules on the calculation of penalties but many a telecoms supplier ignores these and rely on ignorance. So how can you protect yourself and reduce the risks?
1) Check if the supplier is signed up to the telecoms ombudsman as that offers free binding arbitration to consumers and small businesses if there is a dispute. Obviously if you have real doubts then consult a lawyer it could save you money in the long run.
2) Send an email listing your understanding of contract and ask them to confirm that in a conflict between their T&Cs and the email – the email takes precedence and only on that basis are you accepting contract. Within the email you could include:
– Contract duration and notice period;
– That prices are fixed for duration – any changes gives you freedom to cancel without penalty whenever it is spotted;
– Only the charges specified in the contract may be levied – this stops hidden costs such as call set up fees and likewise any changes in T&Cs;
– Repeat any claims made (e.g. you will save money) and state that they are a condition of the contract and if they fail to meet these then the contract is null and void;
– The contract will not rollover at the end of the term without your explicit prior consent.
How many people have ever compared their bill to the prices in the contract? We frequently find large differences. The longer you are asked to commit for the contract the more closely to should read the small print. Some suppliers promise to pay any penalties you may incur by switching but then fail to follow through. If you are offered this incentive, do make sure you get it in writing. State clearly that any failure to do so will make your contract with them null and void.
In conclusion, it is fair to say many of these points could apply to a range of services, not just telecoms, but a telecoms supplier is guilty of often seeking to bamboozle customers with jargon. It relies on people not spotting things, and then being unwilling to challenge. And for those who do challenge – then the supplier will draw out the process for as long as possible. So, be aware of what you are sighing up to, what your rights are, keep an eye on your bills and be ready to challenge your supplier if you spot any changes, inconsistencies, or failures.
Dave Millett has over 35 years’ experience in the telecoms industry. He now runs Equinox, a leading independent brokerage and consultancy firm.
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