For years, it’s been all too easy to rack up unexpectedly high charges when ringing up call centres, government departments, banks or directory enquiries from a mobile phone.
But that was only half the problem. The high price of contacting call centres often made consumers wary of calling companies’ support lines to get the help they need, leaving them to suffer in silence.
To improve things, Ofcom introduced regulations intended to make call costs for non-geographic numbers/premium rate service numbers more transparent.
So what exactly do the changes bring? How will they affect you? And which numbers are classified as ‘premium rate’ or 'non-geographic'? Read on and we’ll explain all.
There are two main types of numbers that carry an additional charge, and they're not all technically 'premium rate' numbers. Here are the main differences between the two.
'Non-geographic numbers’ is an umbrella term that refers to the fact that these telephone numbers don’t start with a code that tells you where in the UK you’re calling.
That’s in contrast to standard numbers that feature area codes, such as 020 for London, or 0161 for Manchester.
Non-geographic numbers are those you usually have to call to get in touch with the likes of call centres for banks and mobile phone networks' customer support services.
It's for this reason that they're also referred to as 'service numbers'. In the sense that you're ringing for a 'service' from a service provider. These numbers usually start with the prefixes 0800, 03, 084 and 087.
Actual premium rate numbers, on the other hand, are a sub-set of numbers under the wider banner of ‘non-geographic’ numbers. They start with the prefixes 09, 118, 0871, 0872 and 0873.
They’re often used for services such as weather information or for competitions and are described as ‘premium rate’ because they’re far from cheap to call.
The most expensive premium rate numbers cost up to £3 per minute and even the cheapest cost about 75p per minute.
From 1 July 2015, major changes to the regulations for non-geographic numbers come into force.
Beforehand, only if you were calling from a BT landline could you be sure how much it costs to call a non-geographic number / premium rate number.
If you were calling from a mobile phone, you were forced to take a chance and usually only found out how much the call cost afterwards.
However, under the new rules, mobile phone networks are obliged to clearly print the price of non-geographic calls on bills and on customers' contracts and anywhere their customer support contact number appears. Or more specifically, they'll have to print the 'access charge' that applies.
The term 'access charge' has come into being because Ofcom’s new regime will also see the cost of calling a premium rate number split into two parts. These are:
The price it costs to call the service provider (that’s the business you’re calling). This is referred to as the ‘service charge’
How much your network is charging to connect the call. This is referred to as an ‘access charge’.
In the past, the message that appeared next to a premium rate number would read: “Calls cost Xp per minute from a BT landline. Calls may vary from other landlines and calls from mobiles may cost considerably more.”
However, from hereon in the message next to premium numbers will read: “Calls cost Xp per minute, plus your phone company’s access charge.”
Finally, in the last of the changes coming into force, these regulations will also see a cap introduced on the cost of calling non-geographic / premium rate numbers. It’s not yet clear at what level the cap will be set.
There is. Non-geographic numbers are those that start with: 084, 087, 09, which are frequently the most expensive, as well as 118, 03 and 0800.
As is stands, networks are being allowed to set their own prices for access charges with no upper limit being enforced. At the time of writing, UK carriers’ access charges range between 20p and 44p.
There are a number of possible outcomes of the changes to the rules governing non-geographic numbers.
Ofcom predicts that the rules could be a catalyst for call rates for non-geographic numbers to fall substantially.
The regulator claims that with consumers now empowered with information about the cost of service calls, many businesses will switch to numbers with the prefix ‘03’. These are still non-geographic numbers but are by some distance the cheapest type to call.
If you’re calling from a pay-as-you-go phone, 03 numbers are priced in line with standard calls you make on your mobile. So expect to pay between 8p and 40p per minute.
If you’re on a pay monthly contract, calls to 03 numbers are included in your monthly allowance of call minutes. So won’t cost you any extra.
However, a less happy outcome of the rule changes is that consumers could be caught out by the huge variation between networks' access charges. That's due to the fact that the onus is very much on customers to be vigilant and ensure they're aware of prices before they make a call to a service / non-geographic number.
Worse still, it could come to pass that the regulations may backfire and the price of calling premium rate numbers will rise. This is because there's no cap on access charges, so networks can set prices at any rate that suits them.
Richard Neudegg, telecoms expert at Uswitch.com, said: “It’s not so much the mental arithmetic required to work out the new call charges that’s the problem - but people could easily be caught out if they aren’t clued up about their provider’s new charges.
“Ofcom's new system relies on people keeping an eagle eye on what they will be charged before they pick up the phone. The theory is the charges will be more transparent than before, but it doesn't mean they will be cheaper."
The good news is that it no longer will it cost you to call so-called 'freephone' numbers cost from a mobile. As of July 2015, these will be free to call too.
The sole locations that are exempt from the rules are the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
Looking for a mobile phone plan? Read our guide to mobile phone tariffs here: Mobile phone tariffs explained.
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