Fury of paying customers who lose mobile phone credit when numbers are “recycled”

Fight: Rupert Lane got his number taken

Mobile networks are criticized for blithely selling on the phone numbers of paying customers who do not use their handsets frequently enough.

Although networks are allowed to “recycle” dormant mobile numbers, some customers only find out about this practice when they try to use their phone and it doesn’t work.

This often happens to vulnerable customers who only keep a cell phone in an emergency. There is no obligation on the networks to repay any unpaid credit on the phone.

Rupert Lane was furious to discover that his provider Virgin Mobile had recycled his number without his knowledge – and without repaying his remaining credit.

The 82-year-old man, who lives in Plymouth, prefers to use his landline to make calls but keeps a cell phone for emergencies and occasional use. He tried using the mobile recently and when it didn’t work he went to a local store to ask why.

It was only at this point that staff revealed that his number was no longer theirs and that they were given a replacement SIM card.

But since then he has struggled to recover the money that was overdue on his old card. He says it’s a little more than a “theft”. Rupert says, “I would have expected the company to call or write me a letter warning me. Why doesn’t he contact the customer? It would be simple decency to do so.

He was told that the lost credit would be added to his new SIM card within two days. When the credit did not materialize, he called Virgin Mobile’s customer service number – for which there is a charge – but was notified of a ten to 20-minute wait on hold. Not wanting to pay for waiting, he tried again but with the same result.

When he called his local store, a member of staff told him that the credit could not be credited to his new card. Rupert adds, “It’s like visiting the bank and withdrawing money from someone else’s account. It would be easy to deduce this from just a few pounds, but it lacks fairness and honesty. It is a sharp practice.

Virgin Media says Rupert’s number has been deactivated because it had not been used for a long time. He said that after all, it would add credit to his new number. The company says it only recycles a number if the “paid activity” has not taken place in the past year.

He adds: “Before a number is recycled, customers will be contacted by SMS if their number has not been used for a paid activity within 90 days – and again if it remains inactive within 365 days. days.”


The supply of mobile numbers – all 11 digits and starting with 07 – is limited and millions of them sit idle.

To help tackle the shortage, mobile networks are allowed to “suspend” inactive numbers, while allowing 999 emergency calls.

During the suspension period, customers may be able to reactivate the number by contacting their provider.

If not in use, networks can then resell the number to new customers, known as “recycling”.

But some existing customers say they weren’t given notice before their number was sold.

Ernest Doku, mobile expert on comparison site uSwitch, says: “This problem often affects vulnerable customers who may only have a mobile for peace of mind. At the very least, providers should seek to reimburse any lost credit to affected consumers and notify them in advance by text message.

Hands-free: people who only use their mobile sporadically are invited by Ofcom to use it

Hands-free: people who only use their mobile sporadically are invited by Ofcom to use it “at least once every few months”

How often people need to use their phones to keep their number depends on the network they are using.

Doku adds, “As it stands, the rules for how long a line remains active are unclear and vary from provider to provider, from 70 days to over six months.

People who only use their mobile sporadically are invited by the communications regulator Ofcom to use it “at least once every few months” in order to keep their number.

They should also ask their provider what the valid activity is – for example, texting or making a phone call. Calling an automated number to check a credit balance is unlikely to be enough.

Ofcom says: “There are good reasons why unused phone numbers are recycled, but it’s important that customers are treated fairly. We expect supplier terms and conditions to strike the right balance.

“They need to make sure that numbers aren’t recycled too early and that customers are made aware of the need to use their phones before any credit is lost.”

But there is no pressure on the telephone companies to repay any credit that customers have paid.

Ofcom adds, “Suppliers have different policies regarding the repayment of unused credit. Customers who wish to dispute a refund with their supplier should contact their customer service and follow the formal complaints procedure.

“If they are still dissatisfied, they can refer their complaint to a dispute resolution service. “

Customers can submit their case – free of charge – either to the Communications Mediator or to the Cisas (Communication and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme).

Ask your network which one it uses. To contact the ombudsman for communications, visit ombudsman-services.org/communications or call 0330 440 1614. To contact Cisas, visit cedr.com/consumer/cisas or call 0207 520 3814.

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