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Unicom Hits Mobile Customer with £10K Bill for 17GB of UK Data

Thursday, July 12th, 2018 (11:00 am) - Score 1,874
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A 70 year old customer of Unicom (aka – Universal Utilities, VERASTAR, Kinex etc.), who claims to rarely ever use her mobile phone, has had to battle the broadband ISP after she was hit with a staggering bill of £10K for allegedly gobbling 17 GigaBytes of mobile data in a single 8 hour window.

Most mobile operators have adopted new warning systems and data add-ons, which today should make it very difficult to drum up such a huge bill for 17GB of excess data outside of an allowance (particularly as this is UK usage). For example, giffgaff charges up to 5p per MegaByte (roughly £50 per GB) and if you gobble all your data on others, like Three UK, then you’ll be offered a cheap data add-on.

The fact that most mobile plans with around 20GB of included data tend to cost roughly £20-£30 per month is another indication that, generally speaking, nobody should ever be paying thousands of pounds for having used up 17GB of data as that would be beyond ridiculous. Nevertheless This is Money has spotted just such a case, which isn’t helped by the fact that Unicom were charging 50p per MegaByte (around £500 per GB)!

Apparently the customer’s normal mobile plan only included 1GB of data and in the previous month she used just 0.4GB. The customer claims to only use her device very infrequently (past bills appear to support this) and never for any heavy data gobbling activities, although in fairness it’s also possible that automatic software or app upgrades could have suddenly gobbled up several GigaBytes (17GB still seems excessive even for that).

We should point out that it’s entirely possible to consume that much mobile data in just 8 hours and you’d only need a minimum Mobile Broadband speed of about 5Mbps, which would be easy enough to deliver on both older 3G and modern superfast 4G networks.

Unicom claims that they did issue a warning message on the same day, although the customer didn’t spot that until it was too late and the company has also refused to provide a breakdown of the data bill (admittedly there are sometimes limits to how much information can be provided). The good news is that the ombudsman has since helped the customer to get her bill reduced to £1,100 +vat.

A Spokesperson for Unicom said:

“We do not market products for personal use, [but] we do allow customers to keep contracts in place if they retire, as was the case with Mrs Howkins. Our contract is clear that she is responsible for her usage and is liable for data charges. As a gesture of goodwill, we are substantially reducing the charges.

We are reliant on our Mobile Virtual Network Enabler, Transatel, for the breakdown of customer usage and, whilst they insist that the data was used, they have been unable to either provide this information themselves or procure it from BT / EE, the ultimate network provider.”

Unfortunately Unicom has somewhat of a chequered history in this industry and in 2015 they were fined £200,000 by Ofcom after being found to have mislead consumers (here and here). So far the company has not proposed to make any changes to their systems in order to prevent others being stung in the same way again in the future.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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29 Responses
  1. mike

    I’ve never heard of unicom but have made a note to avoid them forever. £10,000 for 17GB is completely unjustifiable – I don’t care what the contract says. The company is abusing their customer to enrich themselves.

  2. Paul W

    Yeah, note to self, never go with unicorn.

  3. chris conder

    I always keep mobile data turned off. Safest way. Then you know when you are using it.

  4. Salek

    dont OFCOM or somebody regulate this sort of thing ?

    • Mike

      Legislating against stupidity isn’t easy.

    • wireless pacman

      I feel that much of the problem stems from the fact that Ofcom, Ombudsmen et al stupidly “assume” that the moment you set up a business you “obviously” know everything about everything and/or can afford to spend gazillions on an army of professional advisers.

  5. Guy Cashmore

    I find it unbelievable that OFCOM allows Unicom to charge 50p per MB, that’s the real issue here, on my EE contract I pay £0.0003 per MB.

    • CarlT

      We’ve a free-ish market. If you want a state-run mobile company where prices are set by government I don’t think that’s something you’ll see here.

    • AnotherTim

      Raiding banks and mugging people in the street are illegal – what’s wrong with the government stepping in to prevent robbery here too?

    • Carl T

      You’re seriously equating price controls with robbery and mugging?

      Ooookay.

    • AnotherTim

      There’s a difference between price controls and £500/GB (+VAT), which is robbery – it isn’t justified on commercial grounds, it is there purely to catch people out in the knowledge that most people can/will do nothing about it.

    • Mike

      Don’t sign a contract without reading and understanding it.

  6. dragoneast

    Yet again, it shows the need for customers to be alert and try to understand the technology e.g. data saver, and data settings on their phone. Somewhere along the line the information isn’t given to customers as it should be and in bold red print in big text boxes. (How you handle it when every phone and variant of an OS is different, and most people won’t even have the foggiest of what I’m on about, I don’t know). Your mobile phone, like your PC (and your dog, motor vehicle, and kids) is a dangerous animal that needs to be watched.

    But the basic lessons are that none of us can assume “everything is OK”, because if it isn’t that’s our risk; and second the back-end is now so complicated that it is often impossible to tell where something has gone wrong, let alone apportion responsibility, even if anyone would own up to it. Contract law was developed in a much simpler age and, as ever, we have a “mend and make do” ad hoc approach to modernisation.

    The problem is that Brits are just lazy s%ds. We ask for it. It’s an international business and people abroad have learned (often the hard way) to be much more suspicious and careful. We like to believe there is a “welfare state” for everything, and the politicians like us to believe it too so they can bask in the reflected feelgood glow. There isn’t, and it doesn’t look after us anyway; we have to do that. Despite what the media monkeys keep telling us (the upside, never the downside with the same enthusiasm, for some strange reason).

    • Chris P

      I’d argue that the ombudsman should step in and stop people spending more than £100 on their bills. If the consumer wants more then they should be advised to shop around for a better deal.

      What’s the point of an ombudsman if they can’t and don’t stop nonsense like someone getting a £17k bill. It just shouldn’t be possible to get a huge bill without prior obvious consent where the biller pre verifies the system user can pay the huge fees.

  7. Jazzy

    Unicom are a dreadful company whose staff have personally harassed me and who were paid a visit by the police last year for a series of abusive phone calls and voicemail messages, all traced to their call centre in newcastle

    • MJ

      Hi Jazzy,
      I just heard from a national journalist who is preparing a piece about this sort of behaviour from this company. If you would to speak to the journalist about your experience I can give you their contact details

  8. A_Builder

    I’m not sure about any of this really holding water.

    It may have been a business contract and then carried on but it then is a consumer contract and at that point become subject to SOG, SOGA and The Unfair Contracts Act and all the other consumer legislation.

    So while you can get away with this rubbish on B2B contracts you cant on B2C.

    So they probably cannot rely on their old B2B contract standing up to scrutiny.

    So I’m not sure that they could pursue this through the courts if they could not prove that the data was used: which they clearly cannot as they don’t know what it was used for.

    Personally I think Unicom would be on the naughty step.

    • Maria Jessney

      Hi A Builder
      I understand that when a Unicom / Verastar Ltd take over the supply of a domestic residential consumer, that customer is issued with a ‘business’ contract meaning the consumer has lost all their consumer rights as a domestic user.

    • Maria Jessney

      I know of a lady who after she realised that Unicom had given her domestic residential home line a business line status, she raised a complaint with the Ombudsman Services. Incredibly, the Ombudsman ruled in Unicom’s favour! As they usually do!!

    • MJ

      Hi A Builder
      I searched and found the copy of the letter that the Ombudsman sent to the lady I mentioned who complained to the Ombudsman that Unicom had given her home telephone supply a business line status. Below is an extract taken from the Ombudsman’s decision letter!
      “Although I appreciate that you have distinguished your accounts between your business account at XXXXX XXXXX and your residential address which was initially XXXXX XXXXX Unicom has taken them both on as Business accounts under the Business terms and conditions. Because of that it does not have to offer you a 12 month contract for your home address.”
      I think the Ombudsman may need investigating for such an outrageous decision

  9. Maria Jessney

    The Unicom company (Verastar Ltd) trade under many different trading names and below are a list of just a few
    Verastar Ltd
    Unicom
    Kinex
    Clear Business
    Woav
    Switchingon
    Universal Debt Collection
    Marble
    Advantage
    Crown
    Business Comms Solutions
    Optimum
    Premier
    Elite
    Sunstome
    118777
    3D
    Talk Plus
    Aimera
    OVO
    Economy Gas
    Octopus
    And many more. See the full list and level of complaints on http://www.unicom-complaints.co.uk

    • AnotherTim

      Oh I do like the fact that they have their own debt collection company!
      I also like the claims on their website about reducing your costs – not only do they rip you off, but they claim to save you money while they do it!
      However, I’m a little shocked that their companies include OVO Energy – I used them for a while, then they raised their prices very substantially so I moved on.

    • A_Builder

      @Maria Jessney

      That doesn’t work under the legislation and case law from it.

      As soon as the person is a consumer that have consumer rights. They can’t sign them away.

      Totally different if it is an LLP or Ltd Co.

      Ombudsman would appear to be wrong in law. But we don’t have full facts.

    • newt

      OVO isn’t one of their brands.

  10. Maria Jessney

    Hi Another Tim,
    Universal Debt Collection in not an actual licenced debt collecting company. It is the name that Unicom have allocated to their own in-house credit control department but they are not licenced to collect debt as a debt collector. They would need a Consumer Credit Licence to do that!! Problem is that they would then be regulated by the FCA. As it is now,the debt collection practices of Universal Debt Collection / Unicom is completely unregulated

  11. Name*

    Did anyone check if her mobile had enough space to save 17GB on the local storage?

    • Jerry

      It doesn’t necessarily mean that she downloaded. Just watching videos on Facebook/YouTube (although I don’t believe she would be watching YouTube), viewing pictures on the web which can equate to high amounts of bandwidth due to the resolutions/quality of content websites provide.

      I certainly think this is legalised robbery and to have it reduced is ridiculous. The elderly are vulnerable and for companies like this to take advantage is just pure criminal.

  12. RJ

    Hi Newt
    October 17 2016
    Verastar announces deal with OVO energy
    https://verastar.co.uk/verastar-announces-deal-with-ovo-energy/

  13. bloke

    New telecom rule needed – the ISP MUST ask/confirm before every £X amount of overage is used and the customer can choose X.

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