Sunday, 14 May 2017


“Shall I put you straight through?” Those are perhaps the most profitable words in the English language. They come at what you may think is the end of a directory enquiry call to a number beginning with 118.

The call may already have cost you more than £9, made up of a connection charge of £4.49 plus a time charge of £4.49 a minute for the first minute then £4.49 a minute after. These are called the service charges. On top of that you will be paying your own phone provider what is called an access charge of anything from 12p a minute on landlines to 55p a minute on some mobiles.

That extraordinary cost is just the start. The real profit for directory enquiry firms comes from putting you through to the number it found for you. If you answer ‘yes’ to that question the £4.49 per minute charge will continue as long as the call lasts. A ten minute call from a mobile phone would cost almost £55. If you are kept waiting on a customer service number it will be the most expensive hold music you have ever listened to. Spotify would be cheaper.

No escape
The charges usually apply even if the number is not found.

They also apply even if the number you are put through to is a ‘free’ 0800 number or if you expect to pay for all your calls in your inclusive monthly payment. That is because premium numbers such as 0844 and 118 and are excluded from these bundles.

If you foolishly do agree to be 'put straight through' you will be told what the service charge is, thanks to a previous ruling by the telecoms regulator. But even if you say 'no' and write down the number on the back of your hand you will already have spent more than £9 for the call even if it lasts less than a minute.

The regulator Ofcom has now announced it will investigate 118 directory enquiry services. The move came after several newspapers told tales of readers who had been charged extortionate amounts for a single call. One woman quoted in the Observer was charged £501 by Telecom 2 for several attempts to connect her to a number while charging her £7.99 a minute. There are still eight services that charge £15.98 for the first minute and £7.99 a minute thereafter.

Some popular directory enquiry services put up their prices in May. One operated by The Number UK Ltd has added £2 for the first minute raising the cost to £8.98 and the per minute charge after that is £4.49, up £1.

Ofcom published details of its study on 12 May. “Given the rising cost of calling these service numbers, Ofcom is launching a Call Cost Review, to ensure that prices are transparent and fair to consumers.” No mention there of capping them though that power is available to Ofcom. The first consultation on what it might do is expected later this year but it could be well into 2018 before any changes are announced and longer still before they come into force.

Directory enquiries has come a long way since BT charged a flat rate 40p – and even longer ago it was free. That old fashioned monopoly was scrapped in 2003 so that competition could increase choice and keep prices down. There are now 400 directory enquiry services so it certainly achieved one of those objectives. But even BT now charges £5.50 for the call and £2.75 per minute after the first. Plus of course the 12p a minute access charge to itself from a BT landline!

Some directory enquiry services do charge a low flat rate fee. The cheapest seems to 118128 run by Verizon which charges a flatrate 35p a call. But the safest advice is to avoid 118. The one your remember is likely to be one of the heavily advertised numbers that make some of the highest charges.

If you are out use your mobile look up the number on the internet and then just tap it connect. At home use the internet on your computer. If it's a personal number ask a friend. Anything but pay more than £9 to find it.

Out of 330 services for which data are available, there are eight which charge £15.98 for the first minute and then £7.99 for each subsequent minute. With the access charge that would be around £50 for a five minute call. Another 40 charge £6.98 for the first minute and then £3.49 a minute. That would cost around £22 for a five minute call. Some have recently raised this charge to £8.98 plus £4.49 a minute. More than 70 charge £4 plus £2. At the bottom end another 70 charge a flat rate for the call with no per minute charge. These flat-rate fees range from 35p to £6. 

Figures in this piece are mainly taken from data provided by Telecom Tariffs. Neither they nor I make any warranty that the numbers in this piece are correct or to be relied on.

14 May 2017
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