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The Talking Dead: Three million Brits haunted by strangers dialling recycled 'ghost numbers'

  • Three million Brits have received a call meant for the previous owner of their mobile number, while one million have dialled a friend and got a stranger[1]

  • A fifth of people (19%) have been called by someone trying to get in touch with an ex-partner, and one in eight (12%) by a stranger’s child[2]

  • One affected person told how they had to block a stranger who rang ten times as they insisted they were calling their relative’s number[3]

  • A sixth of mobile users (16%) have lost contact with a friend when changing numbers, while one in 20 (5%) accidentally ghosted the person they were dating[4] 

  • One in three consumers (34%) aren’t aware they can keep their mobile phone number when changing provider[5], and a tenth of people (12%) have stayed with their supplier because they are scared of losing their number[6]

  • Uswitch offers tips on how to transfer your mobile number, and advises what to do if you’re receiving unwanted calls.

Three million people have been called by a stranger trying to contact the previous owner of their mobile number[1], according to Uswitch.com, the comparison and switching service — with one affected person telling how they had to block a caller who rang more than ten times as they insisted they were dialling a relative’s number.

Nearly a fifth of Brits (19%) have been called or messaged by someone trying to get in touch with an ex-partner, while one in seven (15%) were contacted by someone calling a number that belonged to their mother, and one in eight (12%) who said the number once belonged to a stranger’s child[2]. 

One person who was haunted by a ‘ghost number’ told how she was plagued by calls from a stranger who was convinced that he was contacting his relative’s number. 

Catriona Hutchinson, 35, from Hastings, East Sussex, said: “He was adamant that my number belonged to his relative. After speaking to him five or six times and receiving numerous voicemails and missed calls, I was forced to block him.”

Another affected person told how they answered a call and waited awkwardly as they were serenaded by a chorus of strangers singing happy birthday meant for another person.

Changing mobile numbers can have consequences for some peoples’ social lives, causing one in six people (16%) to lose contact with a friend, and a hapless one in 20 (5%) finding they had accidentally ghosted the person they were dating. Other unintended results included one in ten people (9%) losing access to an online account, and one in 20 (5%) missing out on a job opportunity[4].

Hollywood actress Jennifer Garner, 49, recently told how she sent a selfie to an old friend, only to find out that the number had changed hands, meaning her picture was received by a complete stranger[7]. 

When someone stops using their number, it is ‘recycled’ and allocated to someone else. If the original owner’s contacts try to call the number once it has been reallocated, they will get the new recipient instead. Calls meant for the original owner’s number are often referred to as coming from a ‘ghost number’.

Mobile network providers are responsible for deciding how long to wait until unwanted numbers are recycled. EE waits at least six months before the number is reallocated, while Vodafone holds off just 90 days before the number can be given to someone else.

More than a third of consumers (34%) are unaware they can keep their mobile number when changing providers, and a similar proportion (35%) are confused about whether this will cost extra[5]. One in ten mobile users (12%) said they had avoided changing providers for fear of losing their number[6].

Ofcom rules means consumers can switch providers with a text, but a quarter of consumers (25%) don’t know what ‘Text-to-Switch’ is. Mobile users can also move their number to a new network by requesting a PAC code from their current provider, but a fifth of consumers (20%) don’t know what one of these is[6]. 

Uswitch.com is offering advice to consumers on how to keep your mobile number when switching network providers, in order to avoid your old contact details being recycled and becoming a ghost number.

Catherine Hiley, mobiles expert at Uswitch.com, comments: “Mobile phone numbers can be reused just 90 days after being handed back, meaning that these spooky encounters are becoming more common.

“All you have to do is get your PAC code from your provider before you make a switch. The code is usually made up of nine digits and will be valid for 30 days. Once you have that, give it to your new provider and they will arrange for you to keep your number.

“If you’re being plagued by unwanted calls, hang up immediately and block the number that’s calling you. 

“At a time of year when families are sitting down to watch Ghostbusters, with ghost numbers it’s less a case of ‘Who you gonna call?’ than ‘Who’s calling you?”

Find out how to keep your phone number when switching mobile phone networks here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Izzy Green
Phone: 07913 954048
Email: isabel.green@rvu.co.uk
Twitter: @UswitchPR

Notes to editors:
Opinium surveyed a sample of 4,000 UK adults from the 19th October to 22nd October 2021. Results were weighted to reflect a nationally representative criteria.
1. Respondents were asked ‘Have you ever had a call or message on your mobile phone where you were connected with the wrong person?’ 264 people replied ‘Yes - someone called/messaged a number that previously belonged to a contact of theirs’. 264 / 4,000 = 6.6%. 6.6% of 55.4 million UK adults = 3.66 million called by a ghost number. 88 people replied ‘Yes - I dialled/messaged a number that previously belonged to a contact of mine’. 88 / 4,000 = 2%. 2% of 55.4 million UK adults = 1.2 million called a ghost number.
2. Respondents were asked ‘You mentioned you received a call or message from someone trying to contact the previous owner of your number. Who was trying to call/message you?’ 34% said ‘A friend / acquaintance of the number’s previous owner’. 19% said ‘The former partner of the number’s previous owner’. 15% said ‘The mother of the number’s previous owner’. 12% said ‘The child of the number’s previous owner.’
3. Respondents were asked ‘You mentioned you received a call or message from someone trying to contact the previous owner of your number. Can you describe what happened and how the call or message went?  Please add as much detail as possible.’ One respondent said ‘I've had loads. One was rude and adamant about it. I've also called the CORRECT number but it's gone elsewhere. Hung up and redialled the same number and been connected properly’
4. Opinium surveyed a sample of 2,000 UK adults from 23rd April to 26th April 2021. Results were weighted to reflect a nationally representative criteria. Respondents were asked ‘You mentioned you have had more than one mobile phone number. Did any of the following happen to you when changing numbers?’ 16% of respondents said ‘I lost contact with a friend’. 9% said ‘I got locked out of /  lost access to an online account.’ 5% said ‘I lost contact with someone I was dating’. 5% said ‘I missed a job opportunity‘. 4% said ‘I missed family news’.
5. Respondents were asked ‘Do you understand the following question to be true or false? Changing network providers usually means having to change numbers.’ 18% replied ‘true’ and 16% said ‘don’t know’. 18% + 16% = 34%. Respondents were asked ‘Do you understand the following question to be true or false? You have to pay extra if you want to keep your number when changing providers’ 12% replied ‘true’ and 23% said ‘don’t know’. 12% + 23% = 35%. 
6. Respondents were asked ‘Which, if any, of the following statements are true to you?’ 12% said ‘I have refrained from changing provider for fear I would lose my mobile phone number’. 41% said ‘I have kept my mobile phone number by taking it with me every time I change provider’. 25% said ‘I don’t know what a text-to-switch service is’. 20% said ‘I don’t know what a PAC code is’.
7. Mail Online: Jennifer Garner makes herself the butt of the joke after accidentally texting selfie snap to complete stranger

About Uswitch - saving you money for 20 years

Uswitch is the UK’s top comparison website for home services switching. We’ve saved consumers £2.5 billion off their energy bills since we launched in September 2000, and also help people find a better deal on their broadband, mobile and TV.

Uswitch is part of RVU, a global group of online brands with a mission to empower consumers to make more confident home services, insurance and financial decisions.