BT home phone customers should check their bills, as well as those of older relatives, to see if they're unnecessarily paying to rent their handsets – some say they've unwittingly paid the fee for 20 years.

Steven is one such example. He emailed us saying: "I found out that my mother-in-law's been paying £4 a quarter for the past 25 years to rent her phone" – that's £400, while Naomi26uk wrote on our forum: "My gran has been paying handset rental to BT for 17 years – a total of £265.20!"

The problem seems to affect those who rented BT handsets years ago, before phones were readily available to buy on the high street. BT says it's been offering phone rentals since before privatisation in 1984 but it could not tell us the exact date, so it's been going for at least 30 years.

The telecoms giant says handset contracts tend to last 18 months, but that if customers don't cancel before the initial contract ends, it'll continue rolling over on a month-on-month or quarterly basis – which seems to have caught many out.

We asked BT how many customers currently rent phones and it wouldn't tell us. But it did say it's a "small proportion of the number of our call customers" and that it is "still popular with some customers".

However, BT has around 10 million home phone customers, so even if 0.5% – 1% of customers still rent a phone, that's 50,000 to 100,000 customers who may not be aware they're continuing to pay.

'I paid £1.14/month for 22 years'

Here are some of the complaints we've seen about BT's phone rental service:

  • Ann emailed us saying: "I regard this as scandalous. BT made out it was my fault that I was still paying. BT broke down my bill to see how it was made up and it never mentioned this payment at all. I raised a formal complaint after realising I'd paid £1.14/month for 22-25 years.

    "I only realised I was paying for this when we checked how much we were paying, after discussing it with family. I was offered a £1.14 refund, which I felt was a slap in the face."

  • Steven also emailed us: "My mother-in-law's BT phone broke a couple of weeks ago. It was then I found out that she'd been paying £4 a quarter for the past 25 years to rent the phone from BT. Surprisingly the engineer turned up and said he couldn't fix it and they'd have to buy themselves a new phone.

    "She had to phone BT back to get them to cancel the quarterly charge. It just struck me there could be many consumers paying 'money for old rope.'"

  • Naomi26uk wrote in our forum: "I was scrutinising my gran's phone bill and noticed something called "Equipment Rental – BT corded telephone". When BT first started out you had to rent a phone costing approx. £3.90 per quarter.

    "However BT continued to charge you for it unless you called to cancel it. My gran has been paying BT for 17 years – a total of £265.20! I called to cancel and ask to be reimbursed and it said no. So far it's offered one month free line rental. I'm annoyed because I don't think it's right that BT knows it's paid off in 18 months but it doesn't notify you."

  • Comeandgo also wrote in our forum: "I found the same when I checked my mum's phone bills. She has had this charge from day one with BT, which must be 40 years now, though she has had three phones in that time. I bought her a phone and asked BT whether it would like to pick up the hired phone, it suggested I bin it.

    "It's only in the past 20 years or so you could buy a phone, so those who have never checked their bills and have been with BT for many years should see if you are being charged for a phone. Absolutely no refund. Got a year's free caller recognition and to keep the phone."
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BT customers should check their bills to make sure they're not unnecessarily paying for a phone rental

'BT should at least contact customers when their contract ends''s senior consumer writer, Sally Francis, says: "It's outrageous that those renting home phone handsets from BT are paying hundreds over the price of buying handsets outright, made worse by customers – often older, less tech-savvy people – continuing to pay when their contracts are up.

"BT should at the very least contact customers when their handset rental contract ends and provide them with their options."

How do I know I've been charged for phone rental?

BT says the charge appears "very clearly" on bills under the heading "equipment rental", followed by the handset model number. It's also been reported as being listed in the following way:

  • BT relate 80 rental
  • Entry level corded phone
  • Basic Dial Phone Hard Wire Reduced
  • Charges in advance for corded telephone

How can I cancel?

BT says customers need to give 30 days' notice if they're out of their initial home phone rental contract period to cancel. This will be penalty-free.

If you're still within the contract period, you'll continue to be billed until the contract ends. You can cancel, but you'll be charged to do so. The fee depends on the handset you have.

Can I get a refund?

BT wouldn't answer our questions on whether or not it would refund customers who discover they've been unwittingly charged.

However, if you feel you've unfairly paid, complain to BT either by using our online complaint tool Resolver, or by contacting BT.

If that doesn't work, you can complain to the Ombudsman Services, which deals with complaints from telecoms firms. A spokesperson from the Ombudsman says: "Customers should explain what it is they want as an outcome from the provider.

"The customer can then request an independent review if they are not satisfied with the response. On review we would have to look at all the available information, including whether the customer was made aware of the charges."

Can I still hire a phone from BT?

Now, with single handsets costing around £10, it's easy to buy one, so there's little reason to rent a phone from BT, however, the company does offer specialised handsets for the visually impaired or for people who have hearing problems.

As part of the rent service, customers receive replacement handsets and repairs if anything goes wrong. It currently costs from £1.19 a month.

What does BT say?

A BT spokesperson says: "BT offers customers the option to rent a phone rather than buying one. Renting a phone gives customers many additional benefits such as peace of mind that if their phone becomes faulty, BT will replace it for free. 

"It also gives customers a wide choice of the best phones on the market (currently more than 16 models are available), for as little as £1.19 a month with the convenience of paying for the rental as part of their BT bill. Customers can also upgrade to the latest phone every 18 months, free of charge.

"A customer has to sign up to the rental service and the charge for the phone rental appears very clearly on the customer's bill under 'Rental and other charges' and it is the responsibility of the customer to contact us if they wish to cancel.

"When the contract ends or we replace the phone, then we give the customer instructions on how to return the existing phone. In certain circumstances, for instance if the phone is no longer a current model, we may let the customer keep the phone although we reserve the right to have it returned to us."