Consumer Ombudsman: Legislative reforms needed for the pricing of telephone-based customer services

Many companies use business-rate telephone numbers for customer services, and calls to these numbers are more expensive for consumers than normal telephone calls. However, the law requires companies to provide their customers with a so-called basic-rate telephone number for calls that relate to after-sales services or consumers’ existing contracts. The Consumer Ombudsman has concluded that Finland’s current laws do not protect consumers’ rights in the manner stipulated in the applicable EU Directive and has consequently asked the Ministry of Justice to review the regulations concerning basic-rate customer service numbers.

The law on basic-rate customer service numbers that entered into force in May 2014 is designed to ensure that consumers are able to deal with matters relating to their existing contracts and to report defects, cancel contracts and exercise their other statutory rights effectively and at no extra cost. This is why the law requires companies to provide their customers with a basic-rate telephone number for calls that relate to after-sales services or consumers’ existing contracts. These kinds of calls may relate to, for example, faulty goods or services or billing mistakes.

According to current laws, basic-rate telephone numbers include numbers that are completely free of charge, business-rate numbers with call charges that do not exceed the basic rate set by the Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority each year and corporate numbers, mobile telephone numbers and landline telephone numbers calls to which are charged according to the consumer’s contract with their operator (local network rate / mobile charge). Premium-rate corporate or service numbers can be provided for calls that are not related to after-sales services or existing contracts, such as enquiries concerning store opening hours or products.

The Consumer Ombudsman considers it important that the legislation is reviewed, as the law does not at present safeguard the possibility for consumers to transact with normal telephone charges. The current method of determining the basic rate for calls to customer service numbers does not take into account the fact that most Finns have a monthly calling plan that does not cover calls to business-rate numbers. Calls to customer service numbers therefore always end up costing more than normal telephone calls. The same applies to telephone contracts that are based on the minutes used, as the per-minute rate for calls to corporate numbers is higher than normal.

The regulations would also benefit from simplification and clarification. Based on the Consumer Ombudsman’s monitoring campaigns in 2014 and 2015, businesses were unaware of the differences between telephone numbers and the kinds of numbers that are allowed. The fact that the basic rate is set annually also increases the risk of businesses failing to comply with the law. Furthermore, consumers have found the different kinds of corporate numbers confusing and been surprised by the actual cost of calling business-rate numbers.

The current regulations do not apply to calls relating to financial services or instruments. The Consumer Ombudsman cannot see any grounds for this exemption: the level of consumer protection and the ability of consumers to exercise their rights at no extra cost must be the same for all services. Moreover, in situations where the due date of a bill or a credit card payment is approaching, for example, consumers may have urgent queries that need to be answered by telephone, as not all businesses reply to their e-mails sufficiently promptly. This has been a problem in the payday loan industry in particular.

The Consumer Ombudsman has observed that there are still several businesses that do not offer a basic-rate telephone number for customer services. This is particularly problematic from the perspective of vulnerable individuals who still rely on the telephone for most of their correspondence and for whom using digital services is either difficult or impossible. The Consumer Ombudsman is also concerned about the lack of public-sector corporate numbers that citizens can call at the same rate as normal mobile telephone numbers.