Banks, insurers and energy firms are charging existing customers for phone calls, while offering free phone numbers to new customers.
Which? has discovered that 27 of the 34 leading banks, insurers and energy suppliers offer 0800 numbers for new customers, while only six offer 0800 numbers to existing customers.
Companies that operate a two-tier system, offering 0800 numbers for new customers but an 0844 or 0845 number for existing customers, include Churchill, HSBC, Natwest/RBS and Scottish Power.
The high cost of complaints
Twenty of the companies scrutinised made customers call frequently expensive 0845 numbers to complain about bad service or problems with their bills.
Consumers are faced with a baffling number of different charges depending on the number they call, with call costs for a typical 20 minute peak time call from a BT landline ranging from just over 50p to call 0845 to over £1 to call an 0844 or 0870 number to over £2 to call an 0871 number.
Costs rocket when calling from a mobile with the same typical 20 minute call from an Orange pay monthly phone ranging from £2.50 to £8 depending on the telephone number prefix.
With one in seven homes now mobile-only, and almost two thirds of the companies we investigated using 0845 numbers for customer complaint lines, many consumers are paying a premium to complain.
Which? calls for phone charge transparency
Which? wants to see greater transparency and easy-to-understand information from companies on call costs, so consumers can make an informed choice. More than half of the 34 companies looked at failed to give adequate details about typical call costs on their websites.
However, some companies – including Smile, the Co-operative Bank, John Lewis Insurance, British Gas, Npower, Santander and Barclays – presented clear and comprehensive information, making it even more important for other providers to follow suit.
Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said: ‘It is unbelievable that companies would add insult to injury by charging their customers a premium to make a complaint. It’s even worse when they offer new customers access to 0800 numbers while leaving loyal customers to pay more.
‘We want to see providers being fairer to their existing customers and being more transparent on their call charges so that people are clear what it will cost before they pick up the phone.’