Many leading banks, insurers and energy companies are making existing customers pay to phone them while offering free numbers to new customers, consumer group Which? has found.

The majority – 27 out of the 34 companies investigated – offered 0800 numbers for new customers, while just six gave the free numbers to existing customers, the consumer group says.

Key Points

  • Companies making existing customers pay to phone
  • But offering free numbers to new customers
  • Which? calls for greater transparency

The companies operating a two-tier system by making existing customers use an 0844 or 0845 number included Churchill, HSBC, NatWest/RBS and Scottish Power, the watchdog says.

And 20 companies made their customers call often-expensive 0845 numbers to complain about bad service or problems with their bills.

Which? says customers were faced with a "baffling" number of different charges depending on the number they used, with call costs for a typical 20 minute peak-time call from a BT landline ranging from just over 50p to call 0845 to more than £1 to call an 0844 or 0870 number or more than £2 to call an 0871 number.

Costs rocketed when calling from a mobile, with the same typical 20-minute call from an Orange pay monthly phone ranging from £2.50 to £8 depending on the telephone number prefix.

The group warns that the one in seven homes now using only a mobile phone are paying a premium to talk to the two-thirds of companies offering 0845 numbers for customer complaint lines.

Calls for greater transparency

Which? says it wants to see greater transparency from companies to allow consumers to make an informed choice.

It says more than half of the 34 companies in the study failed to give adequate details about typical call costs on their websites, although those that did included Smile, The Co-operative Bank, John Lewis Insurance, British Gas, Npower, Santander and Barclays.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd says: "It is unbelievable that companies would add insult to injury by charging their customers a premium to make a complaint. It's even worse when they offer new customers access to 0800 numbers while leaving loyal customers to pay more.

"We want to see providers being fairer to their existing customers and being more transparent on their call charges so that people are clear what it will cost before they pick up the phone."