Vodafone customers mugged on holiday have been pursued for more than a year by the mobile operator after thieves ran up £1,000s in premium-rate call charges on their stolen phones.

Despite last year's introduction of a code of practice to cap liability for unauthorised calls, Vodafone has continued to ignore pleas from customers hit by sky-high bills run up by crooks who stole their phones before the code was in place. In some cases customers' phones have even been disconnected over their refusal to pay up.

A crime wave has been sweeping popular European travel destinations in recent years, in which organised gangs set up premium rate phone lines before mugging unsuspecting tourists and using their phones to run up huge bills by calling these numbers and then taking a cut of the charges.

MoneySavingExpert.com spoke to one victim who was billed almost £6,000 after his phone was robbed at knife-point and he has been chased for payment by Vodafone for the past 18 months. It was only after we got involved that Vodafone finally agreed to waive the charge.

If you're unfortunate enough to be targeted by an organised gang of phone thieves while on holiday there is a way to stop them from racking up a big bill, which involves protecting your SIM (more on that later).

'What Vodafone is doing is completely unethical'

IT support business boss Leon Crisp was robbed at knife-point while on holiday in Athens with his wife in February 2015, but their nightmare didn't end after reporting the crime – in fact it was only just beginning.

The thieves took the couples' money and phone, but it was not until after they arrived back home in the UK that Leon discovered the true cost of the theft, when he received his monthly bill from Vodafone.

The mugging took place in the Greek capital on a Sunday and – following Leon reporting it to local police, who told him the phone had been blocked – a call went in to Vodafone the next morning. In that time the thieves had run up a bill of almost £6,000.

Leon told us: "I had a knife to my throat, we were in shock and thought he was going to kill us – he seemed completely crazy. But after notifying the police and Vodafone we thought that was the end of it, until a month later when we received the bill for £5,789."

Leon informed Vodafone of his situation and refused to pay the bill, but this led to his phone – and his company's phones that are also on the contract – being cut off by Vodafone at various points over the past 18 months.

He adds: "This has caused a huge amount of disruption as we keep getting cut off. What Vodafone has been doing is completely unethical, they are preying on people's misfortune – whether it be people like us who have been the target of fraudsters or people who have had their children run up big bills on premium rate lines."

'I was extremely distressed and Vodafone made the experience significantly worse'

Update Monday 8 August: Having initially been unavailable for comment when this story was published, Vodafone has since clarified that the bill Helen received was not for calls made after the phone was stolen but was instead due to her being wrongly charged for a new handset when she only required a new SIM. Vodafone has subsequently apologised, wiped the incorrect charge and has handed over a "goodwill payment" of £300.

Unfortunately, Leon's case is not an isolated incident when it comes to Vodafone playing hardball with customers who've been targeted by organised thieves overseas.

We were also contacted by pensioner Helen Dickinson who was attacked while holidaying with her daughter in Greece in June 2015.

The attacker stole Helen's handbag, which contained cash and a new mobile. Although her daughter had the foresight to call Vodafone within 30 minutes of the attack to report the phone stolen, Helen later received a bill for £450.

Helen says: "I have phoned and emailed Vodafone on countless occasions – and gone through the whole story countless times – to try and get this issue resolved, to no avail.

"No one is willing or able to help, apparently. Even a few weeks ago I had an email to say my account is still £400-plus in debt. As you can imagine, as a pensioner, I was extremely distressed about the attack and Vodafone has made the whole experience significantly worse."

This is not the first time Vodafone has been in the news over its policy of pursuing customers who've been targeted by thieves. In 2014 The Guardian reported that two men from North Wales had been billed £10,500 and £4,300 respectively after their phones were stolen in Barcelona.

MSE investigation leads to Leon's bill being waived

We raised the issue of Leon's extortionate bill with communications regulator Ofcom, and Vodafone has subsequently decided to waive his charges "as a gesture of goodwill".

Nevertheless, an Ofcom spokesperson told us: "We remain concerned about the length of time it has taken the company to address this dispute.

"As you know, last year, we launched a formal investigation into Vodafone's complaints handling processes, which is ongoing."

Vodafone has been regularly making headlines recently for wider billing issues – check out our Vodafone warning guide for more.

What are the rules on phone companies charging customers in this way?

Following Government intervention, in March last year the Code of Practice on Consumer Billing was brought in. This has resulted in certain mobile providers offering a cap on a customer's liability for any unauthorised charges as a result of having their phone stolen.

The code has five signatories so far:

  • EE
  • Vodafone
  • Virgin Mobile
  • Three
  • O2

Vodafone's cap came into effect in September last year and means that if a phone theft is reported within 24 hours the customer is only responsible for the first £100 of calls. If they take five days to report the loss, they're liable for the first £500. If it takes longer than five days they will have to pay all of the charges incurred until the time it's reported to Vodafone.

Victims of muggings chased for £1,000s in charges by Vodafone – what you can do to protect your phone from thieves
There is a way to stop phone thieves from racking up a big bill, which involves protecting your SIM

But what if my phone was stolen before September 2015?

Unfortunately if you're in the same boat as Leon and Helen (ie, your phone was pinched before the code was rolled out) then this cap does not help you. Here, the rules meant that you were liable to pay for unauthorised use until you reported your phone as lost or stolen to Vodafone.

If you're in this situation and not having any joy with Vodafone (or any other mobile operator for that matter) the best course of action is to get in touch with Ombudsman Services: Communications (OS:C).

A spokesperson for the Ombudsman told us it has seen similar cases to those experienced by Leon and Helen.

They added: "Each has been considered on the merits of the available information taking into account the circumstances described. We would encourage any victims of such a fraud to raise a complaint with their service provider, referring to OS:C if the matter is not resolved to their satisfaction."

If you've had a similar experience to Leon and Helen – with Vodafone or another mobile operator – please let us know by emailing news@moneysavingexpert.com.

How best can I protect myself against this crime?

Being targeted in this way is obviously a terrifying ordeal, but you can prevent thieves from making any money out of their premium rate phone line scam by adding a PIN lock for your handset and your SIM.

How to lock your SIM will vary from device to device, but as a general rule you should follow these steps:

On an iPhone:

1.       Settings > Phone > SIM PIN
2.       Switch 'SIM PIN' on
3.       Enter the default SIM PIN (usually 1111)
4.       Select 'Change PIN'
5.       When prompted, enter the default SIM PIN
6.       When prompted, enter a new four-digit PIN to protect your SIM
7.       Re-enter your new four-digit PIN when prompted

 On an Android:

1.       Settings > Security > Set up SIM card lock
2.       Check 'Lock SIM card'
3.       Enter the default SIM PIN (usually 1111)
4.       Select 'Change SIM PIN'
5.       When prompted, enter the default SIM PIN
6.       When prompted, enter a new four-digit PIN to protect your SIM
7.       Re-enter your new four-digit PIN when prompted

What does Vodafone say?

We asked Vodafone what its process is for customers who have had their phone stolen and subsequently been stung with large phone bills, before its charge cap was introduced last September.

A Vodafone spokesperson told us "it would depend on individual circumstances", but in Leon's case they say: "Mr Crisp had his phone stolen in February 2015 before [the cap] was in place. 

"However, we have always looked at the issue of fraud on a case-by-case basis and further investigations determined that this was part of an organised criminal activity using premium rate numbers. On that basis, we decided to waive the fraudulent charges of £5,789."

This story was updated on Monday 8 August.