Mobile contract cancellations cause consumer confusion

A consumer rights group is calling for a 14-day return period on mobile phones when networks don’t give good enough coverage.

At the moment, if a customer buys a phone and realises the network coverage for their local area isn’t good enough, whether or not they can return it depends on which operator and retailer it was purchased from.

Basically, it’s very confusing – what they offer is very often different

For example, when buying directly from the operators, 3 will take returns over coverage issues at any time in the contract, Tesco Mobile will take returns within 14 days on any reason, while Orange won’t allow any returns, according to research from the Communications Consumer Panel.

But if the phone was bought via a third-party retailer, the picture is different. Buying directly from Virgin, customers have 28 days to return phones for any reason. Pick up that very same phone on the Virgin network from Carphone Warehouse, and customers are given 14 days for returns, while Phones 4U will take handsets back anytime in the contract, but only for coverage issues – see the charts below for the full details.

Confused? That’s the problem, says the panel’s Anne Bradley. “Basically, it’s very confusing … what they offer is very often different,” she told PC Pro. “You can have as many as five or six different variations depending on who you buy it from and what channel, whether you buy it in-store or online.”

And if that wasn’t trouble enough, many consumers aren’t given accurate information about such contract details by sales staff. The panel found three-quarters of mobile operators gave accurate data about cancelling contracts, while just 41% of third-party retailers do.

Bradley said the many variations are “frankly very confusing for sales staff – it’s not surprising that they give so many consumers different information”.

Distance shopping

One way shoppers can avoid the confusion is buying online or via telesales. Not only did the panel’s research show telephone-based sales staff gave more accurate information than their shop-based counterparts, but buying over the phone or web also offers a seven-day cooling off period as part of distance selling regulations. “It’s not just for coverage, you’re covered for any problem that you have,” she noted.

The panel wants something similar in place for shopping in store, but doesn’t think regulation is the way to go, preferring a voluntary agreement between operators and retailers, hoping the operators and retailers will realise it’s “a matter of customer service”.

She said that 14-day coverage offer should be a minimum, with retailers and operators able to improve their return policies to differentiate themselves to consumers. “Those that offer a really good returns policy with no limits at all will consider it to be a matter of competitive advantage,” she said.

In the meantime, before buying a mobile phone, consumers should ask about return policies and get a copy of it in writing, Bradley advised.

“It’s also worth making sure they’ve checked on the company’s mobile coverage map to see whether they could expect to get difficulties or not,” she added. “It’s no guarantee, but it gives a bit of a picture.”

Coverage cancellation policies for operators:

Consumer Panel Chart

Coverage cancellation policies for handsets bought via third-party retailers:

Consumer Panel Chart

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