Latest Updates: Mobitrans ceased operating in the UK, despite EE and Ofcom doing nothing but drown complaints in bureaucracy.

Latest:  Latest Updates: EE terminate Mobitrans citing “ongoing concerns” but customers still reporting misinformation and lack of refunds from customer services

Ofcom says “EE’s Responsibility,” but we await further response regarding refunds and any action over the lack of security in charging customer accounts

EE arrangement allowed Mobitrans (and others) to sidestep consumer safeguards

Citizens’ Advice Bureau see a clear case that EE is acting illegally.

EE’s Executive Office and Data Disclosure Team have confirmed they have no evidence that Mobitrans charges were authorised by customer.


 

This page exists to document the ongoing investigation into unauthorised charges made by a company called Mobitrans directly to EE customers’ mobile phone bills, without their knowledge or permission.

The regulator, PhonepayPlus, claims its hands have been tied by a loophole in the regulatory framework which EE has inadvertently or deliberately used to exempt Mobitrans from the expected safeguards.

Ofcom has so far consistently washed its hands of responsibility, but the recent response from PhonepayPlus makes it clear that only Ofcom can investigate EE themselves, and there is clear evidence of wrongdoing that warrants investigation.

So far both EE and Mobitrans have been unable or unwilling to provide any valid evidence of consumers’ consent to these charges, but are refusing to refund or acknowledge the fault, insisting that consumers need prove that they didn’t consent to the charges.

Current Key Facts:

  • Many people have complained that on inspecting their bills they are being charged a £3.33 per week subscription to “Mobile Academy”, and £4.50 a time for unsolicited text messages from this company.
  • Mobitrans, who operate “Mobile Academy”, refuse to accept customers’ complaints that they did not subscribe (and usually have never even heard of Mobile Academy) and insist that they have evidence to prove subscription. Technical analysis of evidence so far provided shows it to be meaningless — the equivalent of citing a takeaway menu in someone’s bin as proof that they ordered a meal. It is presented in a technical fashion which leads most people to feel they don’t know enough to challenge it in the face of Mobitrans’ absolute insistence on its validity.
  • EE (Orange and T-Mobile) claim that despite the money being taking from customers’ mobile accounts with them, this is nothing to do with them and is part of a scheme called Payforit which is regulated on Ofcom’s behalf by PhonepayPlus. The regulator has stated that this is false, and that Mobitrans are operating under agreement with EE.
  • PhonepayPlus, on investigating, have responded that they are currently unable to act because Mobitrans and EE are effectively exploiting a loophole (referred to as “Own Portal“) which removes them from PhonepayPlus’s remit.
  • The EE bill itself (in my case with T-Mobile) shows that these charges appear under “Other T-Mobile Services” as distinct from other Payforit charges which appear under “Third Party Services”, so this would appear to support PhonepayPlus’s position that EE are directly involved.
  • However, EE’s customer service staff have no knowledge of this agreement and are only able to give the canned response they have been given on other, genuinely third party, Payforit services. When pressed sufficiently on the details admit to be out of their depth but that there is no process for them to escalate to anyone who is aware of the details. This is despite assuring Ofcom that steps had been taken to correct this situation.
  • Ofcom have confirmed that the charges are EE’s responsibility but has so far declined to act despite there being clear evidence of wrongdoing on EE’s behalf.
  • EE’s Data Disclosure Team aad Executive Office have confirmed that they do not have evidence of customer authorisation.
  • The Citizens’ Advice Bureau has said in black and white, “If they cannot provide evidence they should refund your money.”
  • Santander, commenting on the Direct Debit aspect of this, have stated that under the Direct Debit scheme EE are not permitted to take customers’ money and refuse to refund it. The must refund when challenged and seek payment through other avenues if they still maintain they are correct.

There are more blog posts on this site with more details. If you want to know who I am and why I feel qualified to investigate this and challenge the statements from EE, Mobitrans and PhonepayPlus, read here.

If you’re interested in seeing more complaints about this, google for “mobitrans charges” or have a look at the twitter hashtag #mobitrans. Note that in the UK it seems to be just EE (Orange and T-Mobile) customers affected, but that there are similar complaints about Mobitrans internationally, and that these complaints both here and abroad go back to at least 2014. Clearly, this is not being properly investigated by the the companies involved.

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The Sad Final Outcome

Sadly, despite over a year of work, the only things we achieved were through public relations campaigns on Twitter and other public forums. Eventually EE terminated their dealings with Mobitrans, Mobitrans stopped operating in the UK and, as we understand it, the parent company was forced to rebrand to distance itself from the awful reputation they had gained.

Neither EE nor the regulators were of any help whatsoever.  While EE and Mobitrans were understandably tight-lipped when implicated with fraud and negligence the complacence and incompetence of Ofcom, as the guardian of the consumer, is shocking.

We didn’t even get straight answers to straight questions: just repeated boiler plate responses and an invitation to escalate through their complaints procedure. Not once did we manage to speak to anyone in any organisation who had a degree of technical understanding and so despite the incontrovertible nature of the evidence we gathered it was taken as a bureaucratic “he said, she said” complaint where the companies’ word always seemed to be weighted more highly than the consumer’s.

Ofcom are still sitting on an internal complaints process which is a year overdue in reporting its findings. It’s a sorry indictment of the lack of fitness for purpose of the consumer protection measures that currently exist in this space.

EE still promoting Mobitrans despite promises to Ofcom

It would seem that despite assuring Ofcom that “In light of ongoing concerns with
the Mobitrans services, however, EE permanently withdrew these services in December last
year,” EE is publicly telling a different story:

https://community.ee.co.uk/t5/Other-EE-Services/About-Mobile-Academy-Mobitrans/m-p/427675

And, despite Ofcom saying, “Given the service in question appears to be an ‘own portal’ service, EE should have taken responsibility for the complaint rather than sending to you to
PhonepayPlus … This is unfortunate and, as described above, EE have taken steps to ensure
that this does not happen again,” that is exactly what EE are doing both when you call their customer support and publicly in documents like the above one and in posts on Twitter.

Despite these clear contradictions of what EE have told Ofcom, and many other documented falsehoods and problems with EE and Mobitrans’s claims, Ofcom are still saying that they do not see evidence of wrongdoing and refuse to investigate, ignoring questions which really deserve an answer and instead passing off EE’s own statements as the the result of the regulator’s deliberations.

Why are Ofcom simply acting as a mouthpiece for EE when it’s clear their story is full of inconsistencies? Consumers deserve better from the regulator.

A Conversation with The Ombudsman

One of the pieces of advice Ofcom give out is that if you’re not happy with the way your mobile company has acted you can contact the Ombudsman. The below is a transcript of this process which I started in November last year.

If you don’t have time to read the full post the bottom line is that they ask for more and more information, then eventually reply after three months advising me to contact PhonepayPlus, despite the fact that right at the start I told them I’d already done so and PhonepayPlus and Ofcom had both told me that it was a matter for the Ombudsman.

Sadly, this isn’t unique to the Ombudsman. This pattern of communication characterises virtually every complaints process I’ve been through. Lots of stalling, lots of asking questions, lots of copy and paste style responses that appear not to have read any of it.

Continue reading

Partial Response from Ofcom

We have received, after two and a half months, a response from Ofcom to the eight points raised. Unfortunately, Ofcom has failed to address these points and the response simply repeats EE’s version of events which in turn repeats Mobitrans’ version of events. Clearly, asking the party accused of fraud for its opinion and then taking that on trust hardly counts as a robust investigation.

EE have, though, agreed to allow PhonepayPlus to regulate their services in future and have terminated any future dealings with Mobitrans “in light of ongoing concerns”, so these are small victories which should improve matters in the future.

In addition, this section of the letter does at least make it crystal clear that Ofcom considers these charges to be EE’s responsibility:

EE’s poor level of customer service

From your most recent letter to us, and previous correspondence, it would appear that the information and advice you were provided with by EE fell short of the standards that we would expect communications providers to be providing to their customers in handling their customer complaints. Given the service in question appears to be an ‘own portal’ service, EE should have taken responsibility for the complaint rather than sending to you to PhonepayPlus which caused the confusion relating to whether the service was regulated by PhonepayPlus. This is unfortunate and, as described above, EE have taken steps to ensure that this does not happen again.

Sadly, even after reading this further reports continue to come in that EE are still continuing to tell their customers something else: that this is not their responsibility and that customers need to seek a refund elsewhere. This is not true, and this is not what they are telling Ofcom.

In light of this clear contradiction and the fact that the original points have still not been addressed, we have pressed Ofcom again to investigate properly.

 

Eight points which deserve a response from EE and Ofcom

Ofcom has so far refused to step in or comment in anything but general terms on the complaints raised against EE. We have now escalated the complaint with them and are seeking, at very least, responses on the following specific points where EE is in breach of its responsibilities:

1. Persistently misinforming customers about the process for challenging payments and seeking a refund, which is not via PhonepayPlus in this case.

2. Persistently misinforming customers about how the Mobitrans “Mobile Academy” service operates, insisting that customers must have agreed via a Payforit screen while the regulator confirms this process is not in fact in place for these subscriptions.

3. Claiming that there is no direct relationship between EE and Mobitrans when PhonepayPlus has made it clear that in fact there is a specific agreement between these two companies in place.

4. Abdication of their duties under consumer law: a company cannot take payment without permission and then refuse either to refund or to provide evidence of the customer’s agreement. Claiming to be acting on a third party’s behalf does not absolve them of their responsibility.

5. Negligence in verifying the validity of claims made by Mobitrans before debiting customers accounts, and a complete refusal to investigate or seek confirmation from Mobitrans after the fact to to justify their position.

6. Complacency in the face of months and indeed years of evidence that Mobitrans is an unscrupulous company which has a track record of charging consumers without their consent.

7. An insufficient level of knowledge in those who are tasked with
handling our complaints to make an informed judgment and an inability to escalate to someone who can.

8. The evidence, such as it is, from Data Protection Requests and months of conversations with EE, Mobitrans and PhonepayPlus, simply does not back up the claims that subscriptions were authorised, and so EE should be refunding customers.

Neither Mobitrans nor EE have provided anything at all which constitutes an agreement from these customers. There is no evidence and yet EE has taken money from customers and refused to refund it without giving any adequate justification.

This is not a dispute about terms and conditions or quality of service where there are conflicting opinions and a need for case by case adjudication. This is systematic fraud and theft affecting many customers, where EE’s position is clearly and factually at fault on several points, and I would expect Ofcom to be taking this far more seriously.

EE Executive Office: No evidence of customer consent

Finally, a written response from EE’s Executive Office, albeit it not a very reassuring one.

Having earlier paid for and eventually received a full Data Disclosure Request under the terms of the Data Protection Act, it was clear that they had no information confirming Mobitrans’s claims of my having subscribed. All that EE were able to provide was logs of the text messages Mobitrans had sent me, and logs showing my IP address. Not a shred of evidence showing that I interacted in any way with Mobitrans, let alone anything that showed that there was any agreement that they charge me.

Challenging this point specifically, I received the following reply:

Thank you for your email expressing your dissatisfaction with the information our Customer Data Disclosure Team have provided.

Unfortunately the information they have provided is the only information we can get from our side at EE, if you wish to get more information I would advise contacting Mobitrans themselves.

So there it is in black and white: EE confirm that they do not have any evidence that I authorised Mobitrans. They have simply taken Mobitrans’s word for it, and yet they continue to refuse to refund me when I have told them that these charges were unauthorised.

EE do not seem to grasp that the problem is that they are taking money from customers on third party say-so without proper checking, and then refusing to accept responsibility when it turns out that the third party was wrong, or lying.

It is quite simply illegal for a company to take your money without your permission then refuse to return it, insisting instead that you contact someone else to argue for a refund.

Ofcom play the “Not Enough Resources To Investigate” Card

In what seems like an abdication of responsibility, Ofcom have switched from trying to pass the buck to PhonepayPlus and are now claiming that they do not have the resources to investigate EE, despite the amount of information they’ve been given and the clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing.

Thank you for your email of 26 November 2015 and for telling us that PhonepayPlus will be updating you further on the steps it is taking about Mobitrans.

Regarding your concerns, as well as those of other customers, about EE’s handling of the Mobitrans issue, we acknowledge that you feel Ofcom should commence an investigation. We would like to assure you that Ofcom has taken notice of the very strong views you hold about EE’s performance and these have been formally recorded here. It is important that we are informed about consumers’ opinions on how the telecoms industry is working. Capturing such information does help to inform our policy.

Because Ofcom’s resources are not unlimited, unfortunately it is not possible for us to commence a formal investigation into every complaint we receive. We use an administrative policy framework to decide whether or not to open an investigation. The criteria Ofcom uses is contained in our Enforcement Guidelines at: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/consultations/draft-enforcement-guidelines/annexes/Enforcement_guidelines.pdf.

It should be stressed that although we are not intending to open an investigation into EE at the moment, it does not mean we will not do so in the future. Ofcom takes it regulatory responsibilities very seriously and we do take action where we believe it is warranted.

You may be aware that we have only recently concluded an investigation into EE’s complaints handling processes and determined that EE had failed to comply with the rules laid out in Ofcom’s complaints handling Code of Practice. This resulted in a fine of £1 million being imposed on EE. Further details are available here: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/enforcement/competition-bulletins/closed-cases/all-closed-cases/cw_01120/Confirmation_Decision_under_s96C_of_a_contravention_under_GC14.4_(non-confidential).pdf

In terms of your individual complaint, and the way this was handled by EE, as mentioned previously, it still remains open to you to pursue your complaint by referring it to Ombudsman Services: Communications for independent adjudication. While Ombudsman Services will not undertake the comprehensive investigation which you are seeking, it is nevertheless a powerful piece of consumer protection for individual unresolved complaints.

I hope the above gives clarification on Ofcom’s role. As also mentioned previously, we do have an internal complaints procedure if you are not satisfied with the way your complaint to Ofcom has been handled or with the responses. For ease of reference, details can be found here: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/about/policies-and-guidelines/complaints-about-ofcom<http://www.ofcom.org.uk/about/policies-and-guidelines/complaints-about-ofcom>.

In closing, we thank you for the time you have taken in bringing to our attention your concerns about both Mobitrans and EE.

There are some very clear problems here.

The first is the implication that because EE has recently been investigated and found to be in breach of the rules, they are somehow being given some sort of grace period. The opposite should be true: they are already known to have broken the rules, so reports of further wrongdoing (and since the ruling and EE’s claims of changed procedures) should if anything be taken even more seriously: it is evidence that despite the fine, they are still not abiding by the rules.

The second is the statement that the regulator does not have the resources to formally investigate every complaint. This is of course common sense, however with the amount of evidence, some of it very clear cut, not investigating something like this is a pretty damning indictment of the regulator’s toothlessness. Other organisations, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, took one look at this evidence and immediately gave an opinion that EE was in the wrong, without the need for lengthy formal investigations. The evidence is that clear-cut. If Ofcom hasn’t the resources to investigate in cases like this, what does that say about its ability to carry out its responsibilities?

In any case, even without the the resources for a “full formal investigation” Ofcom should at least have the resources require to answer the questions that have been asked of them repeatedly, and yet every response back has failed to do this, consisting instead of hollow assurances that, despite appearing to do nothing they are very, keen to record acknowledge that consumers feel that there is a problem.

Ofcom, this is not good enough. Whatever your protests, the buck rests with you and you at least have the resources to answer the questions and points raised to you. You are responsible for the regulation and it simply isn’t acceptable to fail so comprehensively to even engage on this matter.

Ofcom takes it regulatory responsibilities very seriously.” Instead of telling us, why not prove it by taking the simple first step of answering the questions we keep asking?

 

Progress? Updates from PhonepayPlus

Today I was called by the head of customer service at PhonepayPlus, the regulator for premium rate services.

It was a constructive conversation where a lot of the background of the current situation was explained, and I was finally given some concrete answers to questions.

It is clear that there has been a lot of complication caused by the “Own Portal” issue which has been mentioned in this blog and elsewhere before. Essentially this clause decides whether a service is subject to regulation by PhonepayPlus or by Ofcom. The nature of EE’s relationship with Mobitrans is such that it has lead to a great deal of confusion about who is responsible, with EE very clearly benefiting from the situation.

The important points from today’s conversation:

What does “Own Portal” really mean?

In the regulatory framework for premium rate services, a concession is made to premium services offered by the mobile phone company themselves. In short, because the customer has a contract with them, they aren’t expected to jump through authorisation hoops in order to bill you for extra services they sell you. It should be as easy for a mobile operator to sell you football score text messages as it is for them to sell you top-ups, changes in tariff and so on.

The problem appears to be that this has turned out to be a loophole through which EE has allowed several premium operators to sidestep the expected regulation and safeguards. EE has “outsourced” provision of services such as Mobile Academy to these premium operators, but critically they have also outsourced the customer service, the complaints and (as far as I can tell) the policing of the payments to those same companies. They have also, clearly, not informed the customers or customer service staff of this so when questioned, consumers are mislead and told that these are third party companies. While it is true that they are third parties, they are third parties acting under EE’s special privilege so that they can sidestep the normal regulation and safeguards.

This critical point is why so many customers are claiming they didn’t sign up through the Payforit screens that they are told they must have seen: because by permitting them access under the “Own Portal” loophole, EE has allowed them to skip this important step.

EE has passed on the special privilege it has as the company you have a contract with to several third party companies, including Mobitrans, but has clearly failed to either monitor their company, or to correctly inform customers of the nature of the arrangement when they’ve complained.

PhonepayPlus inform me that they first became aware of this problem at the start of the year and have been in discussions with Ofcom about it since May. Unfortunately, they have no channel to talk to EE themselves and until recently, no-one at EE has been prepared to discuss the matter directly with them.

What Happens Next To Mobitrans?

On the question of Mobitrans, an upcoming change means that PhonepayPlus will be able to consider Mobitrans within their remit and, though they stressed that they are not formally “investigating”, they will be able to “assess” Mobitrans. I got the impression this was a legal differentiation which was necessary at this stage. They have also told me that since Mobitrans are based in the Netherlands, they are required to first seek permission from the authorities in the Netherlands before proceeding any further.

I have been offered fortnightly phone updates on the assessment process.

What Happens Next To EE?

PhonepayPlus are still not empowered to take any action against EE. EE come entirely under the regulation of Ofcom. However, it is clear that there is a case to answer for several reasons.

  • EE have, deliberately or through wilful incompetence, been misinforming customers for months or years over the nature of the relationship with Mobitrans and redirecting customers to PhonepayPlus when there is clearly nothing that PhonepayPlus can do to help.
  • Under the terms of the “Own Portal” clause, EE are responsible for these charges and they should be investigating and refunding customers themselves, not passing the buck. Their claims that it is nothing to do with them, and the impression they give that somehow Mobitrans took payment without EE’s involvement, are  false, misleading and clearly in contravention of the rules.
  • In giving third parties access to a loophole which allows them to sidestep the safeguards put in place by the regulator, and in then failing to properly monitor the conduct of those third parties, they have been unacceptably negligent with customer security.
  • Most importantly: legally, if a customer challenges a payment that has been taken EE should either provide appropriate evidence of authorisation, or they should refund the customer. They have no legal right to take payment and demand we prove that we didn’t authorise it. Again, they cannot pass the buck on this: legally, they need to prove they had a right to take our money.

I am in contact with Ofcom about this as I believe there is clear evidence that EE have breached both the regulations and the law on multiple counts here.

Citizens Advice Bureau: “If they cannot provide evidence they should refund your money.”

I have spoken to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau about one of the central points about this case, namely that it is not right that EE can take money from customers’ accounts, insisting it was authorised, and yet not provide any evidence of that authorisation.

We understand from your email that you are having issues with being charged on your mobile account for a service you did not ask for.

Your rights and obligations:
If someone has taken money from you for a service they claim you have
agreed to pay for, then it is reasonable for you to request that they
provide evidence that you formed a contract with them for what they are
asking you to pay. If they cannot provide evidence of this, then you can
argue there is no legal contract in place and they should refund your money.

Criminal offence:
As the trader’s actions could be considered a criminal offence we will be
passing this information onto the appropriate Trading Standards authorities
to make them aware of your concerns. The case is being with referred with
no commitment to contact yourself, but they may contact you if they wish to
discuss the matter further or require further information.

On asking for further information about the Trading Standards report however, I got back a slightly less positive response:

Although we work closely with Trading Standards, we are not an enforcement agency. Instead our role is to offer first stage civil advice; as such, we pass complaints of this nature to Trading Standards so they can evaluate whether or not enforcement action can and should be taken. It is worth bearing in mind that enforcement action can take a long time to process. In addition, a criminal investigation can be expensive; therefore another factor a Trading Standards authority would need to consider would be if the investigation would be of a significant benefit to the general public.

Subsequently, Trading Standards inform us that information provided by  members of the public can become useful many years after it has been submitted. Furthermore, Trading Standards rarely provide feedback to  members of the public. The reason for this is twofold: not only does it  have the potential to hamper any ongoing investigation; but there are not always the resources to inform members of the public about how a complaint has progressed and (when applicable) what the outcome has been. The information is, however, valuable intelligence which allows Trading Standards to properly prioritize their activities.

Which sounds more like the familiar assurance that something is being done, even if it seems as though it’s been ignored.

Ofcom Update: PhonepayPlus really revisiting this time.

Copy of the latest update from Ofcom. Still no actual acknowledgement of the specific issues I have asked questions about, and it’s another buck-passing email but it does at least assure me (again) that PhonepayPlus are within their remit to act.

This does sound like a very similar response to the one from last month, which PhonepayPlus then flatly contradicted, but here is the text in full:

Thank you for your email of 9 November 2015. You also sent Ofcom a copy of your email of the same date to PhonepayPlus in which you request an update in terms of the Mobitrans service ‘Mobile Academy’.

In light of your comments, we have had further engagement with PhonepayPlus on this matter. PhonepayPlus have confirmed that they have further reviewed their position in respect of this service, including holding further discussions with EE to understand more precisely who is providing the service.

We understand that following those discussions PhonepayPlus has established that EE does not regard the service as being an “own-portal” service and, therefore, it would be a service which, subject to European law requirements, would fall under the regulatory remit of PhonepayPlus. PhonepayPlus will be in touch with you shortly to discuss your concerns further.

I am slightly surprised by the sentence highlighted stating that EE does not regard the service as own-portal. Surely it should be down to the regulator to make their own assessment of this, not to simply be told so by the company they are supposed to be regulating?

In any case, we will see if this leads to any further updates.