Millions of UK consumers could receive payouts after a legal claim was launched against mobile phone networks.
Consumer champion Justin Gutmann alleges Vodafone, EE, Three and O2 overcharged customers for phones beyond the end of their contract.
He is seeking damages of more than £3bn on behalf of 4.8 million people.
Responding, EE called the claim “speculative”, while O2 said it hadn’t been contacted.
Vodafone said it didn’t have sufficient detail for its legal team to assess, and Three declined to comment.
The “Loyalty Penalty Claim” – which is being filed with the Competition Appeal Tribunal – is being brought on behalf of consumers who bought contracts made up of a mobile phone and services like data, call minutes, and texts.
Mr Gutmann, a former executive at Citizens Advice, estimates that 28.2 million UK mobile phone contracts could be affected from 2007.
If the claim is successful, someone who had contracts with just one of the mobile operators could get more than £1,800, he estimated.
Mr Gutmann said when the contracts were initially agreed, the cost of repayment during the minimum term of the contract – which is typically 24 months – included both the cost of the mobile and the use of services.
He alleged that the UK’s four biggest network operators and their parent companies did not reduce the amount they charged customers once their minimum contract term ended – despite the fact that consumers had already paid for their mobile handsets.
This meant existing customers were charged for something they had already paid for, and that they were charged more than a new customer on, for example, a Sim-only deal, he added.
“If our claim is successful, it will finally stop these firms from taking advantage of their loyal customers and stop the immoral practice of loyalty penalties,” Mr Gutmann said.
It is an opt-out claim, which means qualifying consumers would be automatically included on the claim for free unless they follow specific steps to opt out, according to Mr Gutmann.
A spokesperson for EE said the firm “strongly disagree with the speculative claim being brought against us”.
“EE offers a range of tariffs and a robust process for dealing with end of contract notifications. The UK mobile market is highly competitive space with some of the lowest pricing across Europe,” the spokesperson said.
Vodafone told the BBC: “This has just been brought to our attention and we don’t yet have sufficient detail for our legal team to assess.”
An O2 spokesperson said that to date “there has been no contact with our legal team on this claim”.
“However, we are proud to have been the first provider to have launched split contracts a decade ago which automatically and fully reduce customers’ bills once they’ve paid off their handset,” the spokesperson added.
The firm said it had been campaigning on this issue since May and has called on other operators to introduce changes that would prevent consumers overpaying for smartphones they already own.
It’s something Jack Drury, 27, from St Albans, experienced earlier this year.
He told the BBC he is “delighted” with the claim.
“For many of us, a monthly fee is the most affordable way of accessing tech. But it should be clear what proportion of that fee is repaying a device, and what is paying for the mobile services,” he said.
How to check if your phone is out of contract
- Since February 2019 providers must contact customers via letter, email or text message to warn them their contract is about to end.
- They don’t have to tell you the cheapest deal available to switch onto, so it’s worth contacting your provider or shopping around to get the cheapest deal.
- If you’re not sure when your contract runs out you can text the word INFO to 85075 at any point. Within minutes you should receive a reply letting you know when your contract expires and what any early termination charges will be.
The ‘loyalty penalty’
It is not the first time the issue of existing customers in the UK overpaying has been in the spotlight.
In September 2018 Citizens Advice submitted a super-complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), raising concerns that longstanding customers were paying more than new customers for mobile contracts, as well as broadband, cash savings, home insurance and mortgages.
The CMA investigated and found the “loyalty penalty” was a significant problem hitting millions of people, including those who could least afford it.
In 2020, new Ofcom rules were brought in requiring firms to let mobile and broadband customers know when contracts are ending and if better deals are available.
Last year, the watchdog said that since the new rules were introduced, the number of out-of-contract broadband customers had fallen by more than one million.
Since 17 June 2022, it said providers need to provide customers with a contract summary before they can give their consent to enter a contract.
This year, Vodafone and Three announced they had struck a deal to merge and create the UK’s biggest mobile phone operator, with around 27 million customers.
Representatives from the companies told MPs their planned merger would not increase prices, despite it reducing the number of competitors in the mobile market.
It’s not known how long the claim could take to go to court. Mr Gutmann has previously represented UK consumers in legal challenges against UK train operators and Apple.
Mr Gutmann filed the claim against Apple – which is unrelated to the claim to mobile network providers – in June 2022. The case was given the go-ahead by a UK court last month.
He said disputes of this size often take a few years to resolve.