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Clingy Virgin Media won't let us leave, customers complain

Ofcom launches investigation into whether telco is making it difficult for people to cancel services

Virgin Media, which provides broadband, phone and TV services in the UK, is in hot water with regulators over allegations that the company is making it difficult for customers to cancel their contracts.

Ofcom announced that it had opened an investigation into the broadband provider today after receiving a number of similar complaints.

"Being able to switch provider easily is an important part of a competitive market," Ofcom said. "Telecoms customers can choose from a wide range of providers, services and packages, and can often save hundreds of pounds by switching to a new deal. This ability for customers to shop around, switch and save is particularly important given the current cost-of-living crisis facing UK households."

The communications regulator's General Conditions of Entitlement stipulate that telecoms providers must not act in a way that discourages customers from canceling services.

If a company breaches these conditions, the agency can fine it for up to 10 percent of relevant turnover, though violations are determined on a case-by-case basis. For 2022, Virgin Media revenues [PDF] were £10.36 billion ($13.5 billion). At the end of last year, it had 5.8 million fixed-line customers and a 44.7 million mobile base, but did not break out TV figures. Virgin Media merged with mobile network O2 in 2021.

Ofcom expressed concern at the number of complaints it had received from subscribers who tried to leave but claimed the company made it difficult.

"Some struggled to get through to an agent on the phone," the regulator said. "Some found their call was dropped mid-way through or they were put on hold for long periods. And many said they had to make lengthy and repeated requests to cancel, as their initial instruction was not actioned."

The investigation launched today will look at whether Virgin Media is complying with Ofcom's contract termination rules and whether the company has failed to meet its requirements on complaints handling, including informing customers of their right to escalate their complaint to an independent ombudsman.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom chief executive, said: "Our rules are there to protect people and make sure consumers can take advantage of cheaper deals that are on offer. That's particularly important at the moment as households look for ways to keep their bills down.

"We're taking action today, on behalf of Virgin Media's customers, to investigate whether the company is putting unnecessary barriers in the way of those who want to switch away.

"We're also expecting more from the industry as a whole in helping to support customers through the cost-of-living crisis. That means no more excuses when it comes to offering and promoting social tariffs to eligible customers who could switch and save today."

A Virgin Media spokesperson told The Register: "We are committed to providing our customers with excellent service, supporting them with any issues and giving clear options should they wish to leave. Complaint rates relating to 'difficulties leaving' have halved over the past year, showing the progress we're making, and we will keep working with Ofcom throughout its investigation, while making further improvements in how we handle customer complaints to provide a better overall experience."

Alex Tofts, broadband expert at price comparison website Broadband Genie, said that an Ofcom probe following mid-contract price rises and a series of embarrassing outages was not a good look for Virgin Media.

"With its focus on high-speed fiber broadband, Virgin Media packages are among the most expensive on the market and, as households look to trim their bills, the company is likely to be at greater risk from consumers wanting to downsize than many rivals," he told The Register.

"Regular cases of broadband outages involving Virgin Media this year are also likely to have boosted complaints and requests to cancel. Customer retention is likely to be the provider's top priority, but there is never an excuse for any lapses in service.

"Latest figures on call handling showed that Virgin Media customers still had to wait longer than the industry average. Their website's help section on billing and payments is also tough to navigate with no live chat or phone number.

"If Ofcom's investigation finds the company in breach of its rules the damage to its reputation is likely to far outweigh any fine. Hopefully when the long-awaited One Touch Switch process is launched later in the year it will mean an end to out-of-contract customers having to announce their intention to leave their current provider before moving to a new one. In the meantime, any Virgin Media customers wanting to cancel should persevere and make sure they don't overpay by staying on a rolling deal."

"One Touch Switch" refers to new Ofcom rules designed to make it easier for customers to change telecoms providers. The regulation, which is much like the mobile arena's text-to-switch rules enforced in 2019, was supposed to be implemented by April 3, but Ofcom noted that industry missed the deadline.

In April Virgin Media suffered a nationwide broadband blackout lasting hours.

Last month users of its email service complained that they had been unable to access their messages for days. While Virgin Media said on June 21 that it had "restored the ability to send and receive emails for all affected accounts," The Register hears that the issue was only fully resolved about four days ago. ®

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