Slam Dunked!

I had a new experience today. Our home phone line and broadband connection was ‘telephone slammed’.

‘Telephone slamming’, as I am now aware, is when a phone service and/or broadband provider takes over your service without your knowledge and with seemingly little in the way of security measures to make this happen (more of that later).

On 26th August, I received an email from Plusnet (my provider until today and hopefully my provider again when all this is resolved) which stated

Another service provider has notified us that you’re moving your phone line and call plan to them.

This was news to me. We’ve been happy with Plusnet for a long time, never had any issues with them, and our broadband speeds have been just fine. I hadn’t spoken with any other providers, filled in any forms anywhere, or expressed any interest in moving provider with anyone else.

I contacted Plusnet immediately and told them this, asked who had made the request (apparently a company called Primus/New Call Telecom) and instructed them to cancel the request, which they duly did and sent me a confirmation email the same day. I thought nothing more of it, suspecting it had been a genuine mistake.

Two days later, I received another copy of the first email and here’s where I potentially ‘cocked up’. Assuming that this was a copy of the initial email that had been sent out again, or from a different department within Plusnet, I ignored it, believing that they had already flagged the move as cancelled. That was 14 days ago.

Around midday today, our landline connection dropped. Thinking this might be a rare ADSL modem or router crash, I rebooted both units. No joy. Next, I checked Plusnet’s service announcements Web page (tethering to my phone) to check for any outages. Nothing there that affected us, so I resorted to phoning them, at which point they informed me that our service had been moved to a new provider.

They went over the chain of communication between us and informed me that since I hadn’t responded to the second email, the process had been followed through. They understood why I hadn’t responded to the second email though, having cancelled the move a mere two days beforehand.

The upshot was that the earliest they could get our phone line and broadband back would be two weeks, regardless of what we did. Moreover, there would be a reconnection fee of £65 (under the circumstances, they agreed to waive this) and there was no guarantee we’d get our landline number back, as the transfer hadn’t included a number move, so our number had been put back ‘in the pool’ of numbers available to new customers. Here again, they managed to claim the number back (we hope)!

There’s no point in getting mad at people in call centres. They’re just doing their job at the ‘coal face’ and processes are often fully automated. Being polite, but firm is the best approach, and Plusnet were both sympathetic and helpful and even offered me a reduced monthly contract for the same service level – I suspect keeping my cool may have helped in this respect too.

Next, I phoned the company who have supposedly taken over our service – Primus. They were unable to find any record of having taken over our service based on any details I gave them – name, address, old phone number, or new phone number (Plusnet told me that dialling 17070 gives you your landline number).

Somewhat flummoxed, I phoned Plusnet back and told them the news. They in turn insisted that it was Primus who had initiated the request and advised that I should call them back and, failing any progress, contact Ofcom.

I called Primus again and this time I got somewhere, as the person I spoke to made some puzzled noises and asked to put me on hold. After a time, he came back to the call to tell me that he couldn’t be of any further assistance. I asked him to confirm whether or not they had taken over our landline number, but he declined to answer under the auspices of the Data Protection Act.

At this point, I had a minor sense-of-humour failure. On two successive dealings with authorities now (last time was with the Met Police over a speeding ticket falsely issued to me), the person on the end of the phone has wrongly invoked the Data Protection Act. It’s clearly a classic fob-off, used to stop any kind of comeback. In the case of the Met, having got through to a more senior member of staff, they admitted that the info I asked for was not covered by the DPA. Lied to by the police!

I sure as hell wasn’t going to accept that a company who had seemingly taken over my phone couldn’t confirm or deny that they had or hadn’t done so, based on the DPA! I asked the staff member how such a request was covered by the DPA, given that I knew my phone number and was not asking them to disclose any information on a third party. No answer. It seems that invoking the DPA doesn’t necessitate any understanding of its purpose. At that stage, I ended the conversation and phoned Ofcom.

It seems that this experience is reasonably common. Ofcom will investigate and get to the bottom of who now manages my phone line, but that will take four working days. Having not signed anything, I’m tempted to phone a few porn chat lines in Australia to clock up a nice bill. In any event, I can’t establish which provider owns the line and so I can’t get even a temporary ADSL connection established.

What have I learnt from this? Not a great deal. I’m kicking myself slightly for not responding to the second email. I should have grasped that it was an automatically triggered email following a second transfer request two days after the first one had been cancelled. On the other hand, we could have played that game indefinitely and frankly, I’ve got better things to do than sit in call queues every other day cancelling a process I didn’t initiate and they should have the wherewithal to realise that I had cancelled the process just two days before – a process which I hadn’t initiated!

I gave Plusnet some feedback. Namely, it would be sensible to send out a final email a day or two before handover to a new provider happens. If this had happened, I would have been alerted in time to stop the process.

It would also be sensible to require postal or at least verbal confirmation of such a changeover, confirming address and phone number details. That will be something for Ofcom to consider.

As things stand, it looks like what’s most likely is that another person with a similar phone number has requested a transfer, that the number has been entered wrongly, and that one piece of information has been enough to trigger the process. The conspiracy theory version might be that it’s a malicious attempt by a new provider to gain a new customer, who may not be interested in going through all the hassle of reverting to their initial provider.

Either way, the current ease with which this can happen, with someone receiving a single email notification, isn’t really good enough.

Roll on two weeks!

Update – 23rd September

Well, Plusnet ballsed it up. We have a phone line and our old number back fortunately, but despite their reassurances that full service would be restored today, we have no broadband and their latest information is that we won’t be getting it back until 00:00 on 4th October, as BT have some fiddling about to do at the exchange. It transpires they don’t actually, as there is no physical work to be done – just a switch to be flicked. Plusnet started quoting Ofcom rules at me over this, but I’m afraid as far as I’m concerned, somebody ballsed up due to a fully-automated system. Rather than the standard ‘computer says no’ response, I would expect a company which valued its customers to pay to have an engineer come out and sort it.

Suffice it to say I am deeply unimpressed. If they had informed me that there were a chance that broadband wouldn’t be restored (I made it clear that was more important than the phone line), I would have walked. As it is, they have me over a barrel. Since the phone line has been restored, I am bound by a new contract which will require a hefty cancellation fee now.

That in itself adds insult to injury – that I am tied into a two-year contract through no fault of my own and I seemingly have no means of getting out of this without jumping through a whole lot of legal crap I can do without.

Ofcom are fairly unhelpful unfortunately, other than that they confirmed that it was indeed Primus who had slammed my line, despite their denials. Looks like my only recourse is an official complaint through Primus’ complaint procedure.

So, it looks like I’m left with a couple of options:

1. Kick up merry hell and spend a lot of time seeking some redress for the inconvenience and time I’ve spent on this.

2. Put up with things as they are, bound to a contract for a further two years, and just make an effort to tell others this story in the hope that others can learn from it.

My heart says I should do the former, but my brain says I should do the latter.

Either way, I can only recommend to Plusnet that they sort out their communications quite severely. They need some kind of user feedback acknowledgement (a link in an email would suffice) to cancel a transfer to another provider, so the user doesn’t have to phone them up every two days to prevent another supplier from slamming their line. Their communication preferences need to be better. I can opt in/out for marketing info, but I would expect to be emailed whenever an account status changed or there was new information.

And to all existing or prospective Plusnet customers. If you get an email with subject A reminder about moving your Home Phone from Plusnet, DO NOT IGNORE IT. If you phone up, tell them you didn’t initiate a move to another company and tell them to cancel the move and you get the same email a couple of days later, DO NOT IGNORE IT.  If you phone up, tell them you didn’t initiate a move to another company and tell them to cancel the move and you get the same email a couple of days later, DO NOT IGNORE IT. If you phone up, tell them you didn’t initiate a move to another company and tell them to cancel the move and you get the same email a couple of days later, DO NOT IGNORE IT.

Repeat ad bloody nauseum, because no human intervention will be forthcoming to prevent you from a month of being without broadband… And you’ll be paying for the privilege in time, money, and stress.

You get the picture.

Thanks, Plusnet. Good, honest broadband from Yorkshire indeed. It sickens me that they profane the county of my birth with such a claim.

Update – 3rd October

Having been without landline broadband since 11th September, it was finally restored this morning at 10:20. I hope that’s the end to this sorry episode. Fortunately, The One Plan from Three, which has unlimited data allowance, has allowed me to continue working surprisingly well in the intervening time by tethering my work laptop to my phone. So, a big thumbs up to Three!