Broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has ordered phone, broadband and pay-TV companies to stop threatening to disconnect vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills amid financial uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic.
In new guidance issued this morning, Ofcom said the coronavirus pandemic has increased the likelihood of customers’ circumstances changing suddenly, making it more likely some customers will struggle to meet bill payments.
The UK regulator said more protections were needed for those deemed vulnerable, including people in the UK suffering from physical or mental health problems, debt or bereavement.
It urged phone, TV and internet providers to improve transparency and communication with customers, and called on them to “identify any accessibility or customer service needs at the earliest opportunity”.
More than 14m people in the UK have a disability, while almost a quarter of Brits surveyed by Ofcom said they suffered anxiety when dealing with service providers.
Disability charity Scope has warned that “disabled people face hundreds of pounds of extra costs every month, and this often comes from everyday things like bills”.
Ofcom told companies they must publish clearer policies and train their staff better on dealing with vulnerable customers.
“Ofcom’s job is to make sure that, whatever difficulties a person is facing, communications providers offer a high level of customer care, and the services and support people need,” the guidance stated.
The watchdog urged service providers to prevent customers from being disconnected during the pandemic, and said customers must time to get help and support without the threat of enforcement action.
It also called for payment holidays or deferrals in times of crisis, and urged service providers to refer customers to debt organisations that provide free advice and support.
Jane Rumble, director of consumer policy at Ofcom said: “We’re setting out industry best practice to help ensure vulnerable people are treated fairly and sympathetically by their phone, broadband and pay-TV providers.
“This is especially important at a time when many customers may be worried about their physical and mental health, as well as their finances.”
Ofcom also pointed to discrepancies in company policies that forced victims of rape to continue paying their phone bills for months after their devices were taken away for police examination.
The regulatory body urged phone companies to offer new numbers, temporary SIMs or handsets to victims of crime, and to stop demanding payments from those whose phones have been taken away as police evidence.
Sandie Barton, director of operations at Rape Crisis Scotland, welcomed the ,ove, saying: “We have heard from many survivors of sexual violence who’ve experienced uncompassionate and unhelpful responses from mobile providers when their phones have been seized for investigation.
“Ofcom’s moves to address this issue are welcome and in particular the focus on preventing re-traumatisation and providing practical assistance. In signing up to these guidelines, mobile providers could prevent the financial burden and bureaucratic inconvenience that too many survivors face and make a real difference.”