'Minimum service standards' sought
Mobile phone customers are facing charges of up to £800 to leave long contracts that fail to deliver on coverage or features, a charity has warned.
Some users are being "taken to the cleaners" to get out of contracts - on average 19% longer than they were in 2009 - that are not delivering, Citizens Advice said.
The charity examined the 21,500 mobile phone problems it dealt with last year, finding widespread confusion over who was responsible when things went wrong.
It found the maximum two-year contract was now the norm, while the most common problems concerned faulty phones (39%), poor service and exiting contracts (17%), misleading sales practices (16%) and bill disputes (12%).
Shock bills run up by thieves was another costly issue.
Most contracts failed to specify a reasonable minimum service users could expect from their phone, meaning there was no right to cancel if reality fell short of the advertised claims, the charity said.
Those who paid for contracts that included 3G or 4G but did not receive these, or who could not get a signal at home or work, were in some cases still told they must honour the full deal and pay the remainder of as much as £800 to end it early.
Others reported being charged the full amount of their contract to cancel it before they had even received their phone.
Citizens Advice said the continued failure of phone providers and Government to cap bills run up by thieves had resulted in those who had sought help from the charity losing a total of £140,000.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "Consumers can be taken to the cleaners for ending a mobile phone contract that doesn't deliver.
"Consumers should only be paying for the service they receive.
"For consumers to be guaranteed a good deal from their mobile phone providers, clear minimum standards of service and better contract exit rights are needed.
"A cap to stop consumers being told to pay thousand pound phone bills run up by thieves is also long overdue."
She added: "Despite important work by Ofcom and Trading Standards to tackle poor practice, people are still passed from pillar to post when things go wrong.
"Better information for consumers on their rights would encourage confidence instead of confusion among consumers who have a problem.
"Nobody should be left to fall through gaps in regulation, so the Government should now look into simplifying how mobile phone users can get redress when they are treated badly."
It advised those stuck with poor service to speak directly to the supplier, with evidence if possible to explain why it should be possible to leave the contract.
Retailers are legally responsible for ensuring anything they sell is fit for purpose and must offer repair or partial refund up to six years after purchase.
Stolen phones should be reported as soon as possible, with disputes over calls sent in writing to the provider's customer services department and Telecommunications Ombudsman if necessary, providing the company is a member.