There have been two complaints in Moneywise’s mailbag about readers finding themselves out of pocket due to a bipolar condition
In our first case, a reader writes that during a manic period, her husband opened nine phone connections with Vodafone – five in his name and four in hers. She says that Vodafone insists she pays £500 a month in phone contracts until the contract ends in almost two years.
“Due to his condition, my husband has also lost his job and there is no way we can pay so much on one wage,” she says.
“I have asked Vodafone if the tariff can be reduced as these phone contracts won’t be used, but there seems to be little understanding of the issues faced by bipolar sufferers.”
This turned out to be a tricky case, with Vodafone dragging its heels in investigating her complaint.
I was surprised that anyone can sign up for several phone contracts in one go. But Vodafone says this is because these contracts were taken out online over a six-month period.
A spokesperson from Vodafone explains: “All additional connections on the customer’s account were taken out via webchat, and data protection checks were passed.”
But is passing data checks enough? When I asked Vodafone for more details, it said that one-time authorisation codes were sent during the web chat to our reader, and her husband must have had access to her phone.
When I contacted Ofcom about the guidance for providers on treating vulnerable customers fairly, Jane Rumble, director of consumer policy at Ofcom explained: “Our rules make clear that people in vulnerable circumstances, including those with mental health problems, must be given the right help and support they need by phone and broadband providers. We will be raising this with Vodafone.”
In its defence, Vodafone says that it was unaware that our reader’s husband had a bipolar diagnosis until June 2019 – several months after these contracts were taken out.
Once Moneywise got involved, Vodafone offered to cancel the extra connections on both the reader’s and her husband’s accounts free of charge and to waive any balances on these extra connections – if the handsets were returned in good working order.
This is where things took an unexpected turn. Our reader said that her husband no longer had the handsets. She added that she has never had a Vodafone phone and that her husband was now on a pay-as-you-go mobile to try to prevent any issues in the future.
“Having spoken to many mental health workers over time, they are clear that someone in a manic state cannot remember what they have done,” she says.
“My husband could have sold some [handsets] to clear debts; he could have thrown them away to hide them from me; or even given them away. I don’t know – and he doesn’t either,” she explains.
But when Vodafone looked into this further, it found that some of the handsets were being used.
A spokesperson says: “We have looked into the charges relating to the customer’s account and the account of her husband. We can see that five of the handsets originally sent to the home address or picked up in store are still being used by an unknown person or people.
“We have taken the decision to blacklist these phones and the other ones on the accounts.
“We have also waived the entire outstanding amount on both accounts and closed them down. We have explained the situation to your reader.”
Our reader, however, was not happy about this. She says: “Vodafone has blacklisted these handsets against my wishes. I’ve said I am not claiming the phones as lost or stolen – just not in my possession. I just hoped it would reduce the tariffs. Vodafone doesn’t get mental health at all.”
But Vodafone disagrees, saying: “We ensure fairness for the most vulnerable customers, and our policies and guidelines are designed to support our employees in helping them.”
Three tips to avoid a spending spree
Listed below are ideas to help people with mental health problems and their friends and family manage their finances.
Shop around when choosing your bank
Some banks offer tools to help people budget and manage their spending, like the option to block certain types of spending (for example on gambling or retail), or ‘jam jar’ tools to help you set money aside for particular things.
It is worth asking your bank whether
it offers these kinds of tools or any other support for budgeting and planning spending.
Consider using tools to block online spending
The ease of online shopping can make it harder for people to restrain their spending. This is particularly true when people are feeling isolated or struggling to sleep. Online tools such as StayFocusd or Cold Turkey can help people block spending on particular websites or during periods of time when they might be more vulnerable. For more details, visit Moneyandmentalhealth.org.
Stick to cash – and leave your card at home
Some people find it easier to manage spending by taking out a specific amount of cash that they want to limit their spending to, leaving their card at home when they are out and about.
Our second case involves a reader who has been the victim of an online dating scam.
In May 2019, she visited her local branch of Nationwide and transferred £1,500 to a man who she had met online.
Two days later, she visited the branch again to make a payment of £12,500 but it was declined as she did not have any ID. However, she was advised that she could make the payment online. Unfortunately, she went home and did this, confirming that the payment was to a “friend or relative”, when again she was shown a scam warning.
When she went into her branch a few days later, the branch raised concerns that she was being scammed. At that point she told the manager that she was bipolar.
A member of staff called the financial crime team, which blocked her debit card and advised her to report the scam to the police, which she did.
Nationwide was able to recover £1,100 of the £1,500 from the bank that the transfers were made to but it was unable to recover any of the £12,500 payment.
Our reader asked Moneywise to see whether she could claim the money back through a voluntary code where people tricked by fraudsters could be reimbursed by the banks or building societies that have signed up to it.
The new code came into effect on 28 May 2019, just three weeks after our reader was scammed, but it does not apply retrospectively. What is more, if adequate warnings are given – as they were in this case – the bank or building society is not obliged to refund the money.
A spokesperson for Nationwide says: “We are sympathetic to the situation our member finds themselves in, but as she authorised the payments and was given adequate warnings, we are not liable for her loss.
“With each of the two payments she made, she was given a warning about scams. She decided to proceed. When she visited the branch to make the third payment, the team advised her they thought she was being scammed and offered to call the police, which she declined.
“The branch staff reported this situation to our financial crime team, which confirmed she was the victim of a scam. It immediately contacted the receiving bank and managed to recover some of the money.
“Once she alerted us to her bipolar diagnosis, we arranged for our specialist support team to discuss with her the help we can put in place.”
Could a member of staff have picked up on the fact that our reader was vulnerable? Without prior knowledge of her diagnosis, there is little that a bank can do if a customer would like to transfer their own money.
But Helen Undy, chief executive of charity Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, believes that businesses could do more.
“Common symptoms of mental health problems such as low mood, reduced memory or difficulties processing information can make it harder to keep on top of our finances, pay bills, and stick to a budget – and increased impulsivity can result in people spending more money than they can afford.
“All of this can leave people stuck with unwanted purchases, facing mounting debts or unable to access essential services such as banking, energy and broadband altogether,” she explains.
“We would like to see firms help people with mental health problems get a fairer deal in consumer markets. That means taking steps to make their services as accessible as possible. Things like offering people a range of options by which they can get in touch with service providers, ensuring that staff have the right training and tools to support customers with mental health problems, and helping people to engage with their accounts on an ongoing basis would all make a big difference.”
Simon Kitchen, chief executive of charity Bipolar UK, agrees: “There are 1.3 million people living with bipolar in the UK. Overspending is a recognised symptom of the condition, especially when people are manic. This can result in crippling debts, shame and guilt. This is particularly difficult for those who haven’t yet been diagnosed.”
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Isn't it very strange that the 1st payment of £1.500 the bank could recover £1.200. but the second payment of £12.500 much later not one penny could be recovered so we are not paying out to the customer.Not good enough Mr bank man.
Am I missing something? I can't see why the reader in the first problem mentioned, wouldn't want a load of mobile phone handsets blacklisted if neither she nor her husband had the phones in their possession. It doesn't seem to make sense to say they have nine phone contracts, but no handsets in their possession, but they just want the tariffs reducing.
I hope I'm wrong, but the first thought that jumped into my head was that the phones have indeed been sold on, the reader knows the phones are being used, and was just hoping to negotiate a lower price on the tariffs for whoever the phone was sold to.