When Kate Harrison’s dad was in the hospital, she began reviewing her bills and bank statements to make sure everything was in order. She was shocked to find out that he had paid Sky £ 179 per month – a fifth of his retirement income.
The huge bill consisted of £ 109 for her TV package and £ 70 for ‘CLI fees’, a charge she knew nothing about. And, upon investigation, she found out he had paid those charges for four years – amounting to over £ 3,000. It was a huge sum for Mike, 81, which drove him into debt with his credit card company.
The charges began when Mike was caring for his wife Barbara, who suffered from dementia. Since she took care of much of the household expenses and received bills online, he knew little about what to pay for services such as television. Even after her death in 2018, statements continued to be sent to her email address.
“He had no idea that £ 179 was outrageous and thought that was exactly what you had to pay. He wasn’t getting any kind of statement and he wasn’t going to challenge it, ”Kate explains.
She also says her father was too preoccupied at the time, taking care of his wife, to focus on the bills.
When she first challenged Sky, she said the call manager told her he would only reimburse £ 220 and suggested it was her responsibility to monitor her father’s bills.
After checking social media, Sky apologized and returned the money. But the case illustrates the pitfalls of online invoicing, especially when it comes to vulnerable customers.
When Sky customers have several of its boxes at home, each is separately subscribed to the customer’s complete package, called Sky Multiscreen. But you don’t have to pay the full subscription for each box – a discount is applied.
However, to make sure that each box is used in the right place, Sky insists that it is connected to the internet or to a phone line to monitor usage. Otherwise, Calling Line Identification (CLI) fees apply. This is a way for the business to collect the discounts if it cannot see that all of the boxes are in use by a household.
The measures are intended to prevent people from selling the extra box, using it in another location, or taking it to another property when they are away from home.
In that case, four years of charges were imposed while Mike’s two boxes remained in his Liverpool home. The second box he had got disconnected at some point in 2017.
Charging notifications were sent in 2017 and 2018 to Barbara at a time when she was unable to process them. The accusations went unnoticed for four years, with Sky’s only itemized invoices sent to its inbox.
“Sky’s system should tell her that a person hasn’t replied, or even read, any e-mail in years, and a letter should be triggered reminding her why she’s being charged so much,” says Kate.
“My parents had been clients for 14 years with an outdated box that couldn’t even connect to the internet wirelessly.”
She admits that her father could have disputed the bills, but he was unsure what the appropriate amount was and, by the time the charges started, he was caring for his dying wife.
The company has agreed to reimburse £ 3,104.50 to cover them, but believes compensation should be paid for ‘negligent communication’.
Sky then agreed to cut its monthly bills.
In a statement to Observer, Sky said the CLI fee is “a legitimate security measure so that we can verify that Sky boxes are being used in the correct home by the customers they are intended for.”
He added: “These charges end when the box is connected to the Internet or to the phone line and the location is verified. When a box is not connected, customers are informed three times before the start of the charges, and we continue to regularly remind customers that the charges are applied until the box is connected.
“Unfortunately, in this case, we were unable to verify the location of the box from 2017. Due to circumstances beyond the customer’s control, it was never reconnected. We apologized and refunded the charges in full.
The company has also sharply reduced its 18-month TV package, which now costs £ 4 per month, and is sending out paper bills.
Sky refuses to say how many customers receive CLI fees, or how much it collects from them each year.
Ofcom, the communications regulator, says all vendors must have policies in place to ensure vulnerable customers are treated fairly.
“People’s circumstances can change at any time, and we expect suppliers to understand and identify the characteristics and needs of vulnerable customers, and make sure they get support,” he adds. “Any customer who thinks they have not been treated fairly should first complain to their supplier. If you are not satisfied with the outcome, you can take the complaint to an independent ombudsman who will review the case and render a judgment on it.
In Sky’s case, the independent ombudsperson is the Center for Effective Dispute Resolution (Cisas), which did not respond to a request for comment.
For Kate, the importance of discussing finances with older family members, especially after bereavement, was emphasized. “Money is a touchy subject, but I wish we had talked about it sooner,” she says. “The elderly or vulnerable do not always know which charges are fair. Often times, they’re worse off if they’re not online or trying to negotiate better deals, as younger customers routinely do.