CMA to tackle stealth charges
Consumers paying £4bn ‘penalty’ for company loyalty
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has investigated concerns raised by Citizens Advice in a ‘super-complaint’, that companies penalise loyal customers by charging them higher prices than new customers.
The CMA says consumers with cash savings, mortgages, household insurance, mobile phone contracts and broadband are paying a £4 billion a year ‘loyalty penalty’.
It also found that vulnerable people, including the elderly and those on a low income, may be more at risk of paying the this penalty.
The investigation claims to have uncovered damaging practices by firms, which exploit unsuspecting customers. These include continual year on year stealth price rises; costly exit fees; time-consuming and difficult processes to cancel contracts or switch to new providers; and requiring customers to auto-renew or not giving sufficient warning their contract will be rolled over.
Millions of people are affected – from around 1 million in the mortgage market to nearly 12 million in the insurance market. The loyalty penalty is also likely to arise in many other markets, where people’s contracts are rolled over to a higher price.
A number of recommendations are being made to regulators and government to help stop loyal consumers being ripped off. These include:
· Cracking down on harmful business practices using enforcement and regulatory powers to clamp down on harmful practices that stop people getting better deals. The CMA has today opened a consumer law enforcement investigation in the anti-virus software sector. This is a first step and further action may be taken by the CMA and regulators against other companies.
· Setting out clearly the principles businesses across all markets should follow, such as people being able to leave a contract as easily as they enter it. The CMA will also be looking at whether consumer law should also be reinforced.
· Firms should be publicly held to account for charging existing customers much more; regulators should publish the size of the loyalty penalty in key markets and for each supplier on a yearly basis.
· Targeted price caps to protect the people worst hit by the loyalty penalty, such as the vulnerable, where needed.
The CMA has also made recommendations to the Financial Conduct Authority and Ofcom in each of the five markets, where work is currently under way. These include:
· Mobile: providers must stop charging pay-monthly customers the same rate once they’ve effectively paid off their handsets at the end of the minimum contract period. Ofcom should continue its work to challenge this practice and bring it to an end. More should also be done to make people aware of sim-only packages.
· Insurance: there is evidence of firms continually raising prices in this market. The FCA must look closely at these pricing practices in its current market study and take action to prevent people being exploited by firms. This should include considering pricing interventions.
Other recommendations have also been made in the mortgages, cash savings and broadband markets on ways that regulators can tackle the loyalty penalty and protect those being hit the hardest.
The CMA considers urgent action is required. It will be taking forward these recommendations, along with government and regulators. If sufficient progress isn’t made, it may take further action.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “Our work has uncovered a range of problems which leave people feeling ripped off, let down and frustrated. They shouldn’t have to be constantly ‘on guard’, spending hours searching for or negotiating a good deal, to avoid being trapped into bad value contracts or falling victim to stealth price rises.
“Millions of loyal or vulnerable customers are being taken advantage of each year by firms – and end up paying much more than they should do. This must come to an end.
“That’s why we have today recommended a robust package of reforms. There must be a step change to protect the people being hardest hit, including targeted price caps where necessary.
T”ogether the CMA, regulators and government must act more promptly and powerfully to hold firms to account, stop them exploiting their customers and restore people’s trust in markets.”