The 0870 scam: time to rebel

Those of us who have cursed at the waste of time and (our own) money involved in trying to telephone a UK company with an 0870 number, and finding ourselves listening to Vivaldi for half an hour while we wait for a human to answer us, will have been cheered to read an article in the Financial Times of 8/9 October 2005 [subscription needed for full text]  by David Baker, who rightly likens this sly practice to "Sainsbury’s charging an entry fee".   Not only is it impudent to make us pay to contact a company with whom we want to do business or to which we want to make a complaint:  the system actually provides the company with a financial incentive to keep us waiting as long as possible before connecting us to a human, since the longer we are on the line to them, the greater the share of our money they receive.  In my view the offence is hugely aggravated by the interruptions to that tinny Vivaldi every 30 seconds for recorded assurances that our custom is important to them, that our patience [what patience?] is appreciated, that the company is full of remorse for keeping us waiting, and that we shall ‘shortly’ be answered by one of their operatives.  These meaningless messages are even more insulting than the initial routine involving seven, eight or nine rounds of instructions: press one if we want to tell the company chairman that he’s an incompetent jerk, press two if we want our money back, press three to complain about the length of time we have been kept waiting, and press four if we want to hear the list of options all over again.  (It’s sometimes possible to short-circuit this exasperating minuet by simply refraining from pressing any numbers at all after being connected, pretending not to have a tone-dialling telephone:  often this produces a human quite quickly.)

Mr Baker makes two excellent suggestions.

First, most of these rip-off merchants actually have an ordinary telephone number (costing no more than national rates, i.e. a good deal less than an 0870 number) for use by customers outside the UK, and if you can find out what it is, you can use it — and the human who eventually answers won’t know that you aren’t using the 0870 (or other rip-off) number.  You won’t save a huge amount of money, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that a slab of the cost of your call isn’t going to the company that you’re calling, so you are beating a nasty, avaricious system.  Best of all, you can probably save prolonged research in multiple websites to find out an alternative national number by visiting just one invaluable website, "Say No to 0870", run by Daniel Blamire, where you can rapidly find alternative national numbers for a wide range of UK companies, and very often a free 0800 number too.  There’s also provision on the website for those who have tracked them down themselves to add new cheaper or free alternative numbers to the database where they haven’t already been included. 

Secondly, Mr Baker suggests that if you can’t get a cheaper or free number from, and if you can’t unearth one yourself, e.g. from the company’s website, —

…why not use some consumer power and find an alternative supplier instead?

Another irritant is the now widespread habit on the part of the more inefficient companies of keeping their e-mail addresses a closely guarded secret, so that the only way to contact them after a fruitless hour or two on the telephone is to navigate your way through interminable pages of the company’s website to a page from which you can send them a message — but only after you have filled in every personal detail about yourself from the colour of your eyes to your grandmother’s maiden name;  and even after you have done all that and typed in your message, you’ll probably find that when you hit ‘submit’, all you’ll get is a message saying that this service — service! — is currently unavailable.  Even if you do manage to transmit your message, you’re as likely as not to get an automated e-mail in reply saying that it’s not possible to reply to individual messages, but the company will certainly give its undivided attention to what you have said .  And you’ll be warned not to attempt to reply to the e-mail.  The company is to all intents and purposes incommunicado.  Not hard to guess why, either. 

It’s depressing that so many of our household name private sector companies are not only hopelessly incompetent, but so greedy and so contemptuous of their customers into the bargain.  So it’s good to know that Mr Blamire’s ‘No to 0870’ website permits us all occasionally to make a tiny, largely futile, but enjoyable gesture of defiance.  Other bloggers, please copy!


10 Responses

  1. Brian,
    Thanks for your pointer to Daniel Blamire’s I have just used it to contact my car insurance outfit. The total call time 20 mins…..and no Vivaldi!

  2. Peter Harvey says:


    The companies may have numbers for their customers outside the UK but they don’t publicise them. I recently received a British Barclaycard that had to be validated by phone — but the only number on the letter was an 0870.

    Conversely, when I was in Britain in the summer I needed to contact my Spanish mobile phone supplier, who had quite wrongly cut me off so I couldn’t use my mobile to do so. The only numbers that British international directory enquiries could come up with for Movistar were the short numbers for use in Spain. Then I asked them for the number of Movistar España SA (the full company name) and they found a normal Madrid number. But I couldn’t reach it; I got an English-language error message and on my return here I was also unable to get through to it.

    In general, these numbers here are either at local rates or, in the case of some telephone companies, free. You have to wait sometimes. When I had my major problem with Wanadoo a year ago, I spent a long time waiting at local rates listening to someone who wasn’t David Bowie singing ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’.

    Peter Harvey

  3. Martin Kelly says:

    Sir Brian,

    From the quotation you provide, David Baker’s analogy to 0870 numbers being similar to ‘Sainsbury’s charging an entrance fee’, is imperfect. Operators of services which use 0870 numbers tend to be those to which a customer must apply for service – case in point, one of your posters had found your information useful in dealing with an insurance company.

    Here are a very few quick suggestions on how to avoid having to dial 0870 numbers:

    1. Read the terms and conditions of the service you have been permitted to join and are attempting to contact. On 9 occasions out of 10, you will find that your query is covered by a set of terms to which you have already bound yourself.

    2. If you object to the cost of these calls being used to inflate the service provider’s profits, divest yourself of whatever shareholdings you might have in the parent company and do not invest in them again until they have ceased using 0870 numbers.

    3. If calling during the week, do so between 0800-1000 or 1900-2100. Historically, these are the quietest hours in any call-centre, virtually guaranteeing a short or non-existent waiting time. You may no doubt have very many other interesting things to do during these hours; however, a reasonable customer should balance the loss of time involved for other activities with the savings to be made while waiting for a call to be connected; and if in doubt, always call on a Sunday.

    4. If you object to the giving of personal information, you should remember that such requests are motivated by our absurd laws on data protection, so you should therefore campaign for their repeal. They are as burdensome to the adviser to whom you are speaking as they are to yourself, and serve no purpose other than to frustrate the normal flow of human communication, commercial or otherwise.

    5. One trusts that you are not so inclined, but you should always approach every transaction with the expectation that even the largest organisation finds it impossible to provide Rolls-Royce service at Mini Cooper prices. This is an all too common mindset, which seems to be one of Thatcherism’s more unfortunate by-products. Enquire at the point of sale whether an organisation with which you plan to treat provides customer service through call-centres. You will then know precisely which costs have been shaved where, and whether the trade-off involved in sacrificing personal service in favour of price makes the investment worthwhile.

    Also, whenever calling, always, always bear in mind that the Brrtish operator to whom you are speaking is just as likely to be a university graduate as an Indian one. They have heard everything. They spend their working lives being sworn at and having their livelihoods threatened by people they are trying to help, many of whom have profound objections to dialling 0870 numbers. They are not ‘humans’, but ‘people’, a rather important fact which many callers sometimes forget in their quest to get what they want when they want.

  4. Brian says:

    Mr Kelly (or might we not adopt normal blog practice and call each other Martin and Brian respectively?),

    Thank you for these interesting tips and comments.

    On your first point, I must say I regard the ‘Terms and Conditions’ that almost every business imposes on its customers (especially in any online transaction) as in effect another scam, since it’s impossible in practice to buy the service or goods you want without confirming that you have read (which you generally haven’t, unless you have a lot of time on your hands) and accepted the T&C, which on close inspection may well turn out to be outrageous. But however much you Google around, you’re most unlikely to find an alternative supplier whose T&C are any less onerous. So the discovery that you have bound yourself to some condition which relates to your query or complaint is not very comforting.

    On your last point, I always make a point of making it clear, when complaining about the customer-unfriendly behaviour of the company in question (including the unconscionable time I have been kept waiting for a human to reply to my call), that I am not blaming the person I am talking to personally: that I realise that he or she is as much a victim of the company’s incompetence and negligent attitude to its customer relations as I am, and that I greatly sympathise with him or her over the wretched task of having to cope with angry and frustrated callers day after day. A friendly enquiry about where the interlocutor is, and further sympathy about his or her having to work in the evening or at the weekend (where this is the case), often contribute towards a helpful and forthcoming response. Sometimes this includes an outpouring of outrage at the way the company treats its customer relations staff.

    If your interlocutor can’t (or, more rarely, won’t) provide a satisfactory answer to your enquiry, it’s often worth-while asking, politely, to speak to his or her manager, and if necessary to insist on doing so. If this doesn’t produce results either, it can help to tell the manager that you quite understand his (her) difficulty, but that he/she might like to warn his/her superiors that you intend to take the matter up personally with the company’s Chief Executive: that you are not going to be fobbed off with excuses or refusals: and that the only way to get you off the company’s back is in the end going to be to do what you are asking for. This is sometimes enough to produce the results you want, often accompanied by some token ex gratia payment ‘as a gesture of good will’ (!). But, as your own comment implies, one of the keys to getting results is never to get into a shouting match with the employees you are talking to, unless of course they start it themselves. An explicit acknowledgement of your and their common humanity and victim status can do wonders.


  5. Nick says:

    What’s more – don’t be afraid to ask companies to call you back. Whilst most of the time they will just say ‘Sorry, our phone system doesn’t allow us to call out’, some will be more than willing to help you. For example, the other day I saved myself a small fortune calling the Egg credit card company, when they called my mobile back.

    At the end of the day, you will find in most instances the person on the other end doesn’t like it any more than you. They don’t usally lose commission for helping you out, so don’t mind one bit being ‘helpful’. Just ask!

  6. yodasdaddy says:

    good to hear that I am not the only one on this planet that is totally urinated off with these blasted 0870 etc numbers.  i have a deal with ntl which includes broadband and all geographical calls, however, if i dial 0870 or 0845 numbers i incur extra call charges and just to add insult to injury the ntl help line is an 0870 number. the cheeky sods charge me when their system is at fault.   boycott all 0870 etc numbers. tell the firms you deal with to call you or change their number unless they want to see your money go to another firm. we english are the worst race in the world for sitting in our comfy armchairs whilst everything falls apart around our ears. wake up. we have been taken for one too many rides and it is time the lion awoke and bit back.

    Brian adds:  I share your rage at the 0870 system, as you know from my post on the subject.  However, to be fair to NTL (I scorn those lower-case letters that ‘ntl’ insists on using), they do offer a free 0800 number on the back of their bills (0800 052 2000), and there are more 0800 numbers for NTL on the invaluable

    Another irritant (which you touch on) is the common (and incorrect) description of 0845 numbers as costing the same as a local call.  At some times of day and with certain tariffs 0845 numbers actually cost more than local calls.  And, as you hasve discovered, they don’t rank as geographical landline numbers, another snare for the unwary.

  7. Nigel says:

    Hi Brian,

    I recently brought a small claim in the County Court for an unrelated matter, but the defendants lawyers were using a 0870 number. In order to be 'reasonable' they then expect you to call them up every five minutes. What a rip-off!

    To make matters worse I've noticed that they have put these numbers on their 'particulars of defence' so Her Maj. Court Service can run up massive phone bills too. As you read this there could be dozens of Her Maj. Court Service staff, or even members of the Judiciary, stacked up one behind the other in the call queue waiting to talk to these lawyers in relation to any of the cases they are dealing with. The tax payer will, of cause, be paying the bill, even in these civil cases. If I lose the case I get to pay the costs, not once, but twice, once through my phone bill, and then again through the award of costs by the Court.

    Only a lawyer would make you pay twice!!!

    Brian comments:  I  sympathise!  I wonder if it might be possible to discover the ordinary geographical telephone number of the defendants' lawyers, either by looking at their website 'contact us' page, if they have one, or by Googling them, or by asking them for a number that you can use to call them from overseas (and which you can then use within the UK instead of the 0870 number)?  Good luck!

  8. john maxted says:

    Brian, Thanks for the info 0870 is a rip off. How about this. Arrived home today at 3pm my garage had been broken into. Phoned the local community police—- on holiday—- told to phone 0845 number. We pay council tax,now the police are at it!!!! Cheers John

    Brian writes:  John, 0845 numbers are not the same as 0870 or (even worse) 0871.  Depending on your telephone provider andyour package, 0845 numbers may be the same price as local calls, or the same as national calls, or slightly dearer or (occasionally) slightly cheaper.  However there are some recent ominous developments on 0871 numbers: see the saynoto0870 website, specifically — chance to register your views before the consultation closes on 28 June, just six days away.

  9. i did not scab says:

    found a reference to your site in the halifax courier & its great stuff .i reckon i’ll save £40 a month on phoning the tax credits { the almighty middle class fucked up social experiment  } & debt collectors { debt run up to feed & clothe my family because of the tax credits.} this is just the tip of the iceberg caused by a system in which we are only voting the middle class in power, red or blue their all born & bred to keep us in line.

  10. daniel says:

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