‘I was cut off four times’: Virgin Media customers say it’s too hard to cancel costly contracts

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Broadband customers claim they are trapped in costly contracts with Virgin Media five months after the telecoms regulator launched an investigation into the company’s cancellation procedures.

Ofcom announced its inquiry in July after complaints that Virgin was placing “unnecessary barriers” in the way of customers who wanted to switch to cheaper providers after their fixed-term contracts had expired.

Many have faced tariff increases of more than 50% due to the end of fixed-term deals and the company’s record-breaking price rises.

Five months on, Ofcom has no updates on its investigation. In the meantime, more customers report being left out of pocket because of an inability to cancel.

Joe Stafford spent a month trying to end his broadband contract when the monthly tariff soared by 52% after his minimum term expired.

“I initially tried to use their web chat service, but after leaving it open all day for two consecutive days, I gave up,” he said. “I then spent hours on hold to their helpline which is permanently ‘exceptionally busy’, and was cut off four times when I got to speak to somebody.”

When his cancellation request was finally accepted, he was erroneously charged a £49 early termination fee. He said his call to customer services was cut off again after a two-hour wait when he was connected to an adviser. Virgin refunded the fee and a month’s service charges after intervention from the Guardian.

Unlike providers who use the rival Openreach cable network, Virgin Media does not allow its six million broadband customers to cancel expired contracts online. Thirty days’ notice is required before any switch, compared with the 14 days’ notice required to switch Openreach providers.

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Complainants say that calls are left unanswered or cut out and that advisers tried to hard-sell them new packages.

It took Hagen Schumacher 40 days instead of the contractual 30 to cancel his £77.50 a month contract after the minimum term. He was then threatened with debt collectors unless he paid charges accrued during the 10-day delay.

“The call centre agent first tried to sell me another package. When I declined I was put on hold and after an hour’s wait the call disconnected,” he said. “I tried their Live Chat which is manned by a chatbot and got cut off after waiting 83 minutes for an agent. I then sent a registered letter to cancel.” Virgin Media admitted a delay and refunded the extra fee after contact from the Guardian.

The consumer advice website Broadband Savvy, said it had been “inundated” with complaints from customers struggling to escape Virgin’s record-breaking price rises.

“Some have been trying to cancel their connection for three months or more, only to give up after spending hours of their life on hold, and being repeatedly disconnected while waiting to speak with someone,” said founder Tom Paton.

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Households still in fixed-term contracts, meanwhile, face a triple whammy next year when changes to Virgin Media’s terms and conditions come into effect.

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The amendments allow annual inflation-busting price increases, remove the right of affected customers to terminate their contract without cost and abolish the current cap on early-exit fees which can amount to hundreds of pounds on contracts with months left to run.

In August, the consumer group Which? asked Ofcom to intervene, after the company announced annual price rises would be 3.9% above the retail prices index (RPI). Other providers use the lower consumer price index. This year tariffs rose by 13.8%, the second highest in the sector. Another double-digit rise is expected next April and customers will no longer be able to terminate unexpired contracts for free to avoid them.

Ofcom last week announced proposals to ban mid-contract inflation-linked price rises – which are part of most major providers’ terms and conditions – stating they cause “substantial amounts of consumer harm”. Its final decision will be published next spring.

Virgin said it accepted that it is the only large-scale provider to link price rises to RPI. It said that early disconnection fees are charged by other companies and that as most customers see out their contract, very few incur them.

A spokesperson said: “We are committed to giving [customers] clear options should they wish to leave. Complaint rates relating to ‘difficulties leaving’ have halved over the past year, showing the progress we’re making, and a recent Ofcom report showed that we reduced call waiting times from almost four minutes in 2021 to just over three minutes last year.”

This article was amended on 20 December 2023 to make it clear that 14 days’ notice is required to switch providers on the Openreach network and to state that mid-contract inflation-linked price rises are currently part of most major providers’ terms and conditions.

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