Consumers can be charged exorbitant rates when they use directory enquiry services, such as 118 or 070 numbers. Older callers – who may not use the internet – are particularly at risk. Moneywise highlights the charges and the cheaper alternatives on offer.
“118… 118…” as you think of the number, I’d put money on the fact it’s accompanied by the Rocky theme tune and flashbacks of blokes running around your television screen with 118 118 emblazoned on their white string vests.
These 118 numbers are directory enquiry services, introduced by former telecoms regulator Oftel in 2003.
But dig below the catchy jingles and funny adverts used to ingrain 118 numbers into the public consciousness, and you’ll find that the price of some 118 numbers is no laughing matter.
According to figures from telecommunications regulator Ofcom in May 2017, there are more than 400 directory enquiry services in operation, with calls costing as much as £9.
But one of the biggest catches with these services is that the often hefty cost per minute continues once your call is forwarded.
In addition, directory enquiry services are not required to provide information on price on connection – although under the Phone-paid Services Authority rules, providers must warn you of the ongoing cost if you wish to be forwarded to the phone number you have requested.
The regulator is so worried about these hefty charges, that it has launched an investigation into 118 numbers, as well as 070 numbers – see below for more on these.
An Ofcom spokesperson told Moneywise: “We’re concerned about the costs people face when calling 118 and 070 numbers, so last year we launched a review to ensure consumers are properly protected.
“In December, we proposed setting a cap on the wholesale charge of 070 numbers, so it’s in line with charges for calling mobiles. We aim to announce the next steps on our work to protect people using 070 and 118 numbers later this year.”
Ofcom is also talking to fellow regulator the Phone-paid Services Authority about whether there are any additional consumer protection measures the latter could consider under its code of practice.
Sadly, it’s the most vulnerable people in society – for example, older callers who don’t use the internet – who are most likely to be hit.
Caroline Abrahams, director of charity Age UK, explains: “Older people who use directory enquiry services may do so because they are unable to get online – nearly four million people aged 65-plus have never used the internet.
“Companies providing these services [118 numbers] need to make sure that charges are fair and that pricing is made as clear as possible to ensure that vulnerable, older people are not forced into using expensive services to a find a number, which may be for a vital service they need.”
How to beat 118 calls
Moneywise research into the cost of four major directory enquiry services found varying costs. See the two tables below for the difference in price between BT, The Number, The Post Office, and Yell.com’s main 118 numbers – and their cheaper services where available.
Interestingly, two of the best-known directory enquiry services offer cheaper and even free services – they just don’t advertise them as heavily. There are, however, several other methods you can use to try to beat 118 calls.
If you do call a pricey 118 number, make a note of the number you have requested and call it separately.
If you’re confident using the internet, search for an alternative to a 118 number for the company you want to call or use a free online directory enquiry service.
If you feel the price of a 118 call wasn’t made clear before ringing, you first need to contact the provider to complain. If you don’t get a satisfactory response, you can take your gripe to the Phone-paid Services Authority (Psauthority.org.uk).
In March 2018, it fined directory enquiry service 118 113 (Helpdesk Limited) £425,000 and told it to refund customers after complainants said they were unaware of the cost of calls.
What do the providers say?
Moneywise asked each of the four major 118 providers – BT, The Number, The Post Office, and Yell.com – if they consider their charges are fair. The Post Office felt its service was “one of the cheapest” on the market, so its users “don’t rack up big bills”. Yell.com believe its charges are “made clear” and adds that it has a free online directory enquiries tool people can use instead.
BT and The Number, meanwhile, validate their charges by arguing that they both offer cheaper “no-frills” versions where you’re only given one number per call and you’re not forward-connected on to this number.
This information is listed online on The Number’s website below its information on 118 118 call costs. However, there are no details on BT’s cheaper numbers on the page for its main 118 500 number, and you have to search online to find out.
Beware 070 numbers
Other numbers to watch out for are those beginning with 070. These were introduced by Oftel in 1995 and are designed to be used as a ‘follow me’ service, where calls are diverted from one number to another, so that the person being called can keep their own number private. Small businesses and sole traders often use them to make it easy to manage calls.
These 070 numbers can be sold legitimately on a one-off basis – for example, when someone is buying or selling a car and does not wish to advertise their private mobile or fi xed line number on a website or magazine.
But regulator Ofcom is concerned that 070 numbers are being used by scammers to trick people into returning what they believe is a call to a regular mobile number, only to be stung with hefty charges. According to the government, calls to 070 numbers can cost up to £3.40 a minute.
Ofcom’s report into 070 numbers published in December 2017 states “there is evidence to suggest that up to 60% of all  calls are to fraudsters and other misusers”.
To remove this incentive for fraud, Ofcom has proposed capping the termination rate for calls to 070 numbers at just 0.5p per minute, which is the same amount as calls to mobiles. Its fi nal decision on this is due later this year.