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Monday, 18 August 2014

Carphone warehouse, new PAYG handsets and topups to new SIM cards

[ Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me ]

I wrote this article some time ago, but delayed posting it due to having an open issue regarding this with the ASA, which has now completed. In the normal style of this blog I'm posting the transcripts of my discussions with the company. A link to the ASA's ruling is available at the end of the article.

A few months ago I looked at upgrading a pay-as-you-go handset on Vodafone. I'd had the SIM
card for several years and never taken advantage of an upgrade. I saw a handset at a good price on the same network via Carphone Warehouse and decided it might be worth taking advantage of it. Despite being with the network for a long time I didn't top up regularly enough to qualify for an "upgrade" (fair enough) so I was looking at buying a new handset on the network. Unfortunately, this didn't quite work out as expected.

The image on the right shows that when you buy a handset you have to spend an extra £10 to buy a top-up along with the base price. That's pretty clear. The problem arose when I tried to buy the handset and a £10 topup on my existing SIM card. Apparently that's not possible. It's also not at all clear to me from the wording on the image (the same as in-story) that this restriction applies. Normally it's also not possible to port your number from one SIM to another in the same network, so in order to retain my own number it would actually make more sense for me to move to a different network. On that basis this policy doesn't seem to make sense to me or the network, so who's enforcing it? I contacted Vodafone who said they do not enforce such a policy so that left me with Carphone Warehouse. Surely they could explain it? Let's see how that interaction went.

I didn't get a reply to my initial email  and received a confirmation email from them on February 1st and received (I don't have a copy of it - I think it was submitted on a web form so I didn't have a record of it) and after waiting a month I chased it up a and they claimed they'd sent a reply. Given that I use gmail there is pretty much zero chance of an email getting lost as I'd be able to have found it if it had be trapped as spam etc. So I redrafted the email and sent it again. Here's how the conversation went:

SXA> Hi,
SXA> There is no record of any reply in my inbox. Since I used gmail I would have been 
SXA> able to find it even if it had been classed as spam (I was checking periodically for 
SXA> a reply from you since I sent it). Regardless of that, if your web form is losing 
SXA> data that's submitted I strongly suggest you advise your technical team in case you 
SXA> have an SQL injection vulnerability or similar on your server.
SXA> Unfortunately I cannot find the text of my original message to you so I'm going to 
SXA> have to redraft it - I am not an existing customer of yours (despite me trying to 
SXA> be) therefore the details you've asked for are irrelevant:
SXA> My issue was regarding a visit I had to one of your stores (since the policy appears 
SXA> generic across stores it doesn't really matter which) where I was looking at 
SXA> replacing a PAYG mobile which I have on Vodafone with a newer model. I've had the 
SXA> SIM card for several years now and never gone through a formal upgrade process. 
SXA> Regardless of this, I did not qualify for an "upgrade" because (I believe) I fall 
SXA> foul of the regular top up requirement.
SXA> Because of this I started looking at a straight PAYG handset purchase with the 
SXA> intention of putting my existing SIM card into it. However because it's not an 
SXA> official "upgrade" I have to buy a £10 topup. That's fair enough, I'll buy a 
SXA> Vodafone handset and put £10 on my existing SIM card.
SXA> But it seems I cannot do that - you insist on the £10 going on a new SIM. Worse, if 
SXA> I do that and buy a Vodafone SIM I cannot port my number across. This left me with 
SXA> four options if I want to upgrade through your company:
SXA> 1) Put £10 on a new Vodafone SIM and throw it away, and continue to use my old SIM 
SXA>    card and its number. That seems a waste of credit
SXA> 2) Use my existing credit til it's empty and change my number. Inconvenient
SXA> 3) Buy a phone on another network and port the number across
SXA> 4) Go ahead with it and try and convince someone to buy a new SIM with £10 credit on 
SXA>    it from me
SXA> Option 1 just seems ridiculous. Option 2 seems like a ludicrous bureaucratic 
SXA> requirement to be able to replace my handset. Option 3 seems very counter-loyalty 
SXA> from the network' perspective, and in fact a tweet I got from Vodafone after 
SXA> querying this made it clear that this wasn't something that they enforced. Their 
SXA> response was clear in saying that it wasn't something the network enforced on new 
SXA> PAYG handset purchases:
SXA>    "Third party stores may require this. Have you been into a Vodafone store?"
SXA> So the problem appears to be with something you are doing and not something Vodafone 
SXA> are forcing you into. Thinking about this objectively and not just from my 
SXA> perspective:
SXA> a) It doesn't appear to be sensible from a network loyalty perspective (i.e. not 
SXA> good for the network because the most sensible option is for me to move to another 
SXA> one)
SXA> b) I can't see any business benefit to Carphone Warehouse to enforce this 
SXA> (particularly in light of the fact your handsets are supplied unlocked). Any 
SXA> suggestion it's because of a network subsidy seems somewhat suspect as I would 
SXA> expect such a subsidy to mandate it to be locked to their network)
SXA> In fact your sales wording is actively misleading by saying the price is "Plus £10 
SXA> topup" which I don't think any reasonable person would interpret as "Plus a new SIM 
SXA> including £10 credit". I'm (reasonably) happy to pay £10 topup, I'm not happy 
SXA> requiring a new SIM card.
SXA> Can you justify why you have such a seemingly ridiculous policy on PAYG handsets 
SXA> that seems to discourage switching? You've lost a sale to me because of this, I 
SXA> wasted the transport costs visiting your store, and because of this I now currently 
SXA> have a negative view of your company (and losing my initial complaint did not help 
SXA> matters).

So I tried to raise all the issues in a concise manner and explained why it made little business sense to any party to enforce this. How did they reply? Well the first few paragraphs spoke about the upgrade I didn't qualify for (to be honest, that didn't bother me too much - I was happy to buy a new phone) then they looked at addressing the issues:

CPW> Dear Stewart,
CPW> Thank you for replying to our email with your original enquiry.
CPW> Firstly, I am really sorry that it's taken longer than expected for us to 
CPW> respond and for that I do apologise. Looking into your query that we have 
CPW> now received as we have no details for you I can only provide generic
CPW> information however there are a small amount of cases when we are unable 
CPW> to process deals for customers.
CPW> You have advised that you don't qualify for an upgrade as you don't meet 
CPW> the regular top up requirement. In rare circumstances such as this when we 
CPW> can't upgrade a customer we can look into alternatives which you've 
CPW> mentioned would include buying an alternative handset on the same network.
CPW> As you've mentioned that it's been a while since you upgraded it may be 
CPW> the case that with the new handset you would need to get a new SIM 
CPW> regardless of whether we can upgrade you or not. If this is the case then 
CPW> you may be able to transfer your existing number onto the new SIM and the 
CPW>k credit may remain also. If it doesn't then it is something we can 
CPW> certainly look into further for you.
CPW> Whilst the third option you've mentioned isn't one recommended by the 
CPW> network it is still an option and if it was one you wished to take then 
CPW> you could look into porting your number back to Vodafone. I understand
CPW> how inconvenient it may seem but it is an option that you may wish to take.
CPW> I understand that you may feel that the wording in regards to Pay As You 
CPW> Go phones may be misleading however we do try to make it clear to our 
CPW> customers of the difference. You can also purchase the phone SIM free so 
CPW> that you don't need to purchase a replacement SIM.
CPW> I'm sorry that you're unhappy with the service provided and we're happy to 
CPW> help with any queries you may have. I have also logged a complaint to 
CPW> address your comments internally through the appropriate channels. You 
CPW> unique reference is DTP0867656 and I'm sorry for the inconvenience caused.
CPW> If you've any other questions please don't hesitate in replying to this 
CPW> email. Alternatively you can call us [...]

So you've suggested that in order to get around the problem a further option is to port the number away (requiring me to use all my existing credit to avoid losing it, as porting will close the existing account) and then do the same to port it back again. That would of course, like all the other options, cause me to lose my existing tarrif. I do also take issue with "we do try to make it clear to our customers of the difference". Not based on that screen shot, which doesn't indicate any [*] or similar to lead to to the small print. I'm happy to buy a top up. I'm not happy losing my existing details. Let's try again:

SXA> Hi [Colleague name withheld in this blog]  (Ref: DTP0867656),
SXA> You don't appear to have actually answered my real question - although you have
SXA> added a rather undesirable fourth option of "port the number away and back again".
SXA> I'll ask the question simply and I trust you can given an appropriate answer: Why, 
SXA> when there appears to be no benefit to you, the customer, or the network, does 
SXA> CarphoneWarehouse enforce the top-up being on a new SIM when it's not a network-
SXA> enforced restriction? Who does it benefit unless you're hoping that many people in 
SXA> my situation will choose to "lose" the credit via one of the options?
SXA> Despite your response, I still feel the "Plus £10 top up" wording on your website is 
SXA> highly misleading.

To which they replied:

CPW> Dear Stewart,
CPW> Thank you for replying to my email.
CPW> I'm sorry if you're unhappy with the fourth option I mentioned and I'm 
CPW> happy to help in regards to your original query. When customers purchase a 
CPW> phone on Pay-as-you-go the cost is cheaper than purchasing the item 
CPW> outright. In which case the extra is subsidised by the network and these 
CPW> are sold with the intention that they are used with the SIM card provided. 
CPW> This amount is dependent on the network and I hope that helps answer your 
CPW> query.
CPW> If you've any other questions then please feel free to reply to this email 
CPW> or you can call my department [...] 

Now that reads to me as though carphone warehouse's insistance on the topup being applied to a new SIM is because the handset is subsidised to the network who enforces it because of that, although the "intention that they are used with" phrasing is disappointingly vague. So I figured I'd clarify with the network again, who seemed more than keen to give a straight answer:

That, to me, is about as clear as it can be - they do not mandate the required top-up to be on a new SIM card, even when the phone is supplied on a deal through them via a third party retailer such as Carphone Warehouse.. Someone is not being honest with me here, so I sent this screenshot back to Carphone Warehouse:

SXA> I'm curious as to your phrasing of the response as "extra is subsidised by the 
SXA> network and these are sold with the intention they are used with the SIM card 
SXA> provided".
SXA> Your use of "the intention" is quite vague and does not denote any specific 
SXA> requirement, or who is enforcing it, but it does suggest that you are suggesting 
SXA> it's down to the network. I put this to Vodafone today and their response was public 
SXA> and very explcit on a direct question as to whether a third party retailer's (e.g. 
SXA> yourself) required it to be on a new top-up:
SXA> The information from our previous tweets hasn't changed. It's a
SXA> top up on a new or existing Payg SIM SXA> SXA> (See attached screenshot from twitter for this quote) SXA> SXA> Can you explain why Vodafone are saying this, while you are suggesting that's not SXA> the case. I feel one of the two of you is lying to me, or at best misleading me.

At the time of writing this was the last communication - which is nonsense since the screen shot I sent them was 31Kb in size:

CPW> Dear Stewart,
CPW> Thank you for replying to my email.
CPW> I'm afraid that the screenshot you've attached is too large to view as we're only
CPW> able to accept emails and attachments that are less than 10MB in size. Also, as
CPW> Vodafone are a separate company to ourselves I'm
CPW> unable to comment on their
CPW> response and that for that I do apologise.
CPW> I'm sorry if I'm unable to provide you with any specific information and we're only
CPW> able to provide generic information. To contact my department then please feel free
CPW> to reply to this email. You can also call my department on [...]

Clearly, this is getting me nowhere and although Vodafone have been quite open, Carphone appear unwilling to clearly explain where this is coming from, so my only option left is to post the transcript in this blog and hopefully one of them will make an effort to resolve this issue. I've had friends that have effectively lost money by being forced to load up a card they won't use, so the "£10 topup" is purely an extra £10 on their handset cost, where they've continued to use their existing SIM card. I also suspect that the lack of clear information about the new SIM requirement is in almost certainly in violation of reasonable advertising standards. Carphone Warehouse, you've lost any business from me in the future.

As mentioned at the start, instead of posting this article and hoping they would sort it out, I subsequently raised this with the UK Advertising Standards Associaion (ASA) and they agreed with me (you can read the ruling here) and in fact they spotted another issue (not including the top-up in the base price is a violation of advertising practice) Hopefully they will fix both issues soon. I still couldn't get a response to why they insisted on the top-up being applied to a new SIM though, so I've bought a SIM-free handset from an alternative supplier. I shall be sending carphone a link to this blog.

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