Should your mobile network stop you spending?

julia kukiewicz
By Julia Kukiewicz

mobile phone shopping

Why don't mobile networks stop us from spending above our limits?

Ever been landed with a huge mobile bill? You're not alone.

According to research carried out by Ofcom in 2014, the average mobile phone bill shock was £36.

Although that was down on the average for previous years, the incidence of those receiving monstrously excessive bills of more than £100 remained at 9% of those who'd had a shock bill in the past 12 months.

Responsibility for excessive bills can feel like something of a grey area: about two thirds of those hit with big bills don't complain, and the vast majority say that's because they felt it was their fault.

But it needn't be. Shouldn't mobile networks make it easier for us to stop spending?

Capped bills: the regulator's view

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, think so - and in fact, in 2012 they told mobile operators that they had to allow customers to set spending caps on their accounts to prevent them racking up unaffordable bills.

Under Ofcom's proposals, operators would have had to introduce a cap on all pay monthly contracts, with customers having to actively opt out if they wanted to be able to spend more.

In other words, customers wouldn't be able to use their phones in a way that would cost them more than their agreed monthly bill or limit, unless they specifically authorised the additional expense either at the point they were about to incur it or in advance.

But mobile networks were reluctant to do that for two reasons. First, they argued, customers already have a lot of scope to avoid unexpectedly high bills and, second, the technology available to set caps is too unwieldy to be truly useful.

However, with the arrival of EU regulations on data roaming costs (more of which here), both of those arguments have become a lot flimsier.

Capped bills: the regulator's view

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, think so - and in fact, in 2012 they told mobile operators that they had to allow customers to set spending caps on their accounts to prevent them racking up unaffordable bills.

Under Ofcom's proposals, operators would have had to introduce a cap on all pay monthly contracts, with customers having to actively opt out if they wanted to be able to spend more.

In other words, customers wouldn't be able to use their phones in a way that would cost them more than their agreed monthly bill or limit, unless they specifically authorised the additional expense either at the point they were about to incur it or in advance.

But mobile networks were reluctant to do that for two reasons. First, they argued, customers already have a lot of scope to avoid unexpectedly high bills and, second, the technology available to set caps is too unwieldy to be truly useful.

However, with the arrival of EU regulations on data roaming costs (more of which here, both of those arguments have become a lot flimsier.

Already an option?

Most UK mobile operators give their customers some kind of option to limit spending, usually in the form of blocking calls and texts to certain kinds of number.

The problem here is that it's usually up to us to find out about, and then request, these restrictions on our account - and they don't give us much flexibility if the number we need to call is one of those that's blocked.

In descending order of usefulness, here are the tools currently available to customers wanting to avoid a hugely inflated monthly bill.

Mobile networks that offer capped bills

At the time of this update, four networks offer their customers a cap on extra spending if they want one: Tesco Mobile, BT Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, and iD.

Capped bill providers
Tesco Mobile reviewed here
BT Mobile reviewed here
Plusnet mobile reviewed here
iD Mobile reviewed here

All new Plusnet Mobile customers are automatically opted in to the Smart Cap feature, which is set at £10 above their monthly price of their plan. They can ask for this to be adjusted to as low as £2, or up to as much as £30.

Any usage that isn't included in our monthly allowances - like calls or texts to premium numbers, or using our mobile abroad - comes out of this capped amount, and once we've we've reached our limit all chargeable services are stopped.

Customers can either call to request an increase to their cap, wait until the start of the next month or pay off some of the balance to reinstate any blocked services.

Tesco Mobile use a similar system, but they let all new pay monthly customers choose whether they want to cap their bill or not, and let them choose their own "safety buffer": it can be set as low as £2.50 or up to £40 a month.

Those looking at iD Mobile will need to pick one of their Shock Proof plans. The default cap is set at £5, but can be adjusted up to £100 depending on a customer's credit status.

BT Mobile customers aren't automatically assigned a spending cap, but they can add one quickly enough by logging into their account online or using the mobile app and looking for "Tools to manage your spend" then selecting the additional spending limit they want, starting at £5.

Each of these caps is also automatically applied to roaming charges - so depending on how low we set them, they could save us considerably more than the default roaming data cap charge of €50 (around £41) per month.

Three used to offer a spending cap, but since 2014 customers have instead been given one of two options to help control their spending:

The latter is the option preferred by the other three main networks, and the onus is on customers to request such blocks are put in place.

Data caps and text alerts

Mobile operators

What most operators do offer to help control our monthly spend is a data cap. EE, Three and O2 all cut off their customers' data usage once they've used up their allowance for the month; customers will only be able to use data again if they agree to buy a top-up.

Vodafone allow their customers to go over their monthly allowance, and charge handsomely for the honour - but customers who'd rather not risk it can opt in to the same kind of data capping feature as above.

Furthermore, most operators send their customers text alerts when they reach certain thresholds in their allowances, often when we've used 80% and again at the 100% mark.

This isn't a cap, but the proportion of shock bills caused by unexpectedly high domestic data use has reduced significantly since these alerts became standard.

This is a strong argument for the networks to help us stay on top of our usage, as one of the major problems with telling us that we can always monitor how much we're using is that most of us don't.

Each of the big networks, and numerous MVNOs, provide apps that allow us to check how much of everything we're using, but while most of us - about three quarters according to Ofcom - say we're aware of apps like these to keep track of our usage, fewer than half actually do.

Furthermore, over half of those surveyed by Ofcom said they weren't aware they could set their own alerts for usage, and just 16% actually had.

Unlimited tariffs

One of the key pieces of advice Ofcom give people looking to avoid bill shock is to make sure we have the right tariff, with the suggestion being that we probably need a more generous plan.

Plenty of tariffs now offer unlimited texts and calls, and a few offer unlimited data as well. But even these tariffs can come with extra costs as a result of those calls and texts that aren't included in allowances, and many are subject to "fair use" policies that can still put very heavy users at risk of bill shock.

In addition, expensive unlimited deals don't suit those who are already short on cash and therefore really can't afford high bills.

Monitoring by the networks

Finally, O2 have been known to use monitoring software to track phone usage based on past behaviour, in the same way that banks monitor the payment behaviour of credit and debit card holders, to catch and query unusual usage.

The downside is that the system really only catches very high usage, and it's most useful for finding fraud.

Technical problems

Customers signing up for Three's old bill capping system used to be warned that it "may not work if you use your phone abroad or if we're carrying out important system maintenance", the phrasing of which didn't exactly fill users with confidence about the reliability of the technology required.

But Tesco and the other MVNOs listed above seem to manage to implement their caps successfully enough, so it's possible that it works effectively enough on a small scale - but if providers tried to apply it to tens of millions of accounts any issues would quickly multiply.

Operators have complained that the cost of updating their systems would be prohibitive and likely glitchy in a way that could actually damage consumers.

Ofcom apparently can't order networks to be competent.

Use abroad

Ironically, one of the network's arguments against rolling out capping on a wide scale was that they found it difficult to monitor and cap usage abroad, as billing information has to be sent from the foreign partner network.

It's become increasingly difficult to give credence to such objections since the EU brought in a mandatory spending cap for roaming data usage - and while inclusive roaming data is becoming an attractive extra feature with some tariffs, many operators still prefer to get around the issue by encouraging their customers to buy international add-ons instead.

Should your network stop you?

Frustratingly, it seems that despite advances in technology and legislation, only the MVNOs we listed above offer anything as simple and seemingly effective as a total bill cap.

Otherwise, while there are various methods available to help us reduce the number and scale of any excessive bills we receive, they each have their limitations, and much of the time it's up to us to find out about them and ask for them to be implemented.