Gabi Sibley was hit with a £2,000 bill for calls made after her sim card was stolen. But unlike others, she fought her corner in the courts – and won
It was a shock to open the bill from Orange and see they wanted £2,170 from me. I had only just returned from working with the UN in Cambodia and there was no way I could afford to pay it, and indeed no reason why I should pay for the actions of fraudsters. But I calmed down quickly. After all, I had cancelled the contract nine months earlier and thought this obvious mistake would be quickly corrected.
But I soon realised it would be anything but simple. Orange persisted in its demands; letters and calls became more aggressive with a debt collection agency pursuing me with veiled threats of prosecution – as well as its own bill for £600. But after a 13-month battle I can now celebrate a small victory over Orange (and thank my uncle, a barrister, who guided me through it). The bills have been written off and I hope my experience can be of help to the many others who receive these sorts of demands.
In recent years Guardian Money has featured several stories of people who have had their phones stolen abroad and huge bills racked up. My experience was slightly different in that I thought my sim card had been deactivated and discarded, when in fact it was found and then used fraudulently.
It started in August 2010 when I called Orange to cancel my phone contract after getting the job in Cambodia. My 24-month deal was due to terminate at the end of September 2010, so I took my phone with me to call my family and friends from the airport.
On my second day in Cambodia I discarded what I thought was a deactivated Orange sim card and replaced it with a Cambodian sim. I put the Orange sim at the back of a wardrobe. I left Cambodia to travel seven months later, and in moving out of my Cambodian flat the sim must have ended up in the bin. It’s the only conclusion I can reach as the fraudulent calls started the day after I left Cambodia.
Unfortunately, I did not receive any written confirmation from Orange of the cancellation, which I now know is what should happened. The situation was complicated by the fact I was concurrently cancelling a separate iPhone contract with Orange. When speaking to them I reminded them several times that I wanted to cancel the sim as well. Looking back, I now know they should have transferred me to the cancellation department, but because I informed them while discussing the iPhone they only verbally acknowledged it, which I thought would be enough.
Back in the UK my attempts to resolve the bill with Orange were rebuffed. In August 2011 I put my case to the adjudicator scheme CISAS, but it found in Orange’s favour due to a lack of evidence that I had actually cancelled my contract. Determined to fight on, I contacted my local citizens advice bureau, which said my chances of winning in a small claims court were slim and I should consider a repayment plan. So I made an offer to pay a third of the charges, which is what I estimated to be the true cost to Orange of the calls made by the fraudsters. But this was rejected, with Orange insisting I was liable for the whole bill.
I was in a quandrary. The threat of the bill would loom over me for a long time, the debt collection agency would keep coming at me, and Orange might even take me to court. The turning point came when I spoke to my uncle. He suggested I make a claim to Lambeth county court for £222, the amount Orange had taken out of my account. This, as we expected, forced Orange’s hand. It decided to defend my claim and put in a counterclaim for £2,170.
Up to this point I had been receiving letters and phone calls from debt collection agencies, which I felt were aggressive in nature. They then slapped the £600 administrative charge on me. But it was these phone calls and letters that eventually resulted in my success.
The debt collection agency, directed by Orange, continued to send me threats during the CISAS process, and again while we were going through the court proceedings. I alerted Orange to this, stating that it amounted to harassment and was in contempt of court. The debt collection threats then stopped for the duration of the CISAS process, but failed to do so during the court proceedings.
Four months later Orange and I were involved in a telephone mediation. Before this I sent Orange an application and witness statement I had prepared for Lambeth county court. It asked the court to strike out Orange’s defence and counterclaim, and stated that the harassment by its directed debt collection agency was in contempt of court and perverted the course of justice. We failed to reach an agreement. However, while I was preparing this application I received an email from Orange saying that although they denied they were liable, they would like to resolve the matter “amicably and swiftly”. They agreed to withdraw their counterclaim if I would withdraw my claim.
I was relieved – this was the result I wanted, so I accepted the offer. As Orange had previously stonewalled every attempt I had made to end the matter, I was sure this offer was due to the contempt of court application they knew I was about to make.
The whole process lasted 13 months and was a constant uphill struggle. Without the help and encouragement of my uncle this might have been a different story. I recognise I was extremely fortunate to have his help and I have since learned the importance of checking my bank statements thoroughly and getting confirmation of contract cancellations in writing.
Going up against a giant corporation with huge resources is daunting. However, as the months drew on I grew less and less intimidated as I realised they had more to lose than I did.
If I lost, the judge would determine a sensible amount for me to pay back that would be within my means, and would be far less than the £181 a month Orange wanted from me. Neither would I have to pay the extra £600 charges to the debt collection agency, and by going through the courts the amount I owed could not increase, as I was not liable for their costs.
I was confident no judge would allow Orange’s claim for the full cost of the fraudulent calls, but would only allow it to recover its costs rather than profiting from the fraudulent calls.
There must be hundreds of similar cases to mine. It is my view that mobile phone providers have a lot to lose by going up against individual consumers in court. My only regret from the whole saga is that Orange have escaped a court judgment against them.
“We sympathise with the exceptional circumstances of Ms Sibley’s situation, and can confirm that we have agreed a settlement with her. When a customer ends a pay monthly contract with us we would advise them to destroy their sim when they have finished with it. This will ensure against any unauthorised use.
“It’s also worth noting that, while we hope to be able to assist customers who have their phone or sim used fraudulently, it remains their responsibility to tell us as soon as it goes missing. Only then can we prevent calls or data used being charged to their account.”
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