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back to article Virgin Media: SO SORRY we fined your dead dad £10 for unpaid bill

Virgin Media has apologised after charging a dead man £10 for being unable to pay his broadband bill. The bloke's son-in-law Jim Boyden posted a photo of the demand for the tenner on Facebook, along with an open letter accusing the UK internet provider's staff of a "special kind of meanness". Almost 100,000 people have now …

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FAIL

Outstanding

""We've [...] offered our sincerest apologies as automated responses from banks should not appear on customer bills."

So what Virgin Media are really sorry about is having admitted that they knew why the bill wasn't paid. I don't see anything, anywhere, suggesting that they're going to stop charging dead people, just that they are embarrassed about being caught knowingly at it.

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Facepalm

Virgin's Next Apology

"We sincerely apologize for our spokesman's statement about automated bank responses, as information about our company's actual motivations should not appear in public statements."

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Boffin

Re: Outstanding

I don't think that Virgin did actually know why the bill wasn't paid. The automated billing system will probably just register the fact the payment has been declined and then blindly attach the decline message from the bank without any parsing or checking for reasons.

I presume that as we speak, some poor Indian is having to trawl through all the declined messages every received and add filters to the system to make sure that any Account Holder is Dead messages are handled in a more sensitive manner,

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Re: Outstanding

"I don't think that Virgin did actually know why the bill wasn't paid"

There's a 'dead person' identifier on the letter, in which case Virgin's systems ought to have recognised it and passed it to a human to deal with. Unless, that is, they don't have any humans doing humane stuff.

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Thumb Down

Re: Outstanding

If you don't give the system something like a trigger that will flag this kind of thing up, then it can't really trigger it, can it? And triggering *every* DD that failed would be daft.

Who knows what the banks provide as standard response for 'account holder deceased'... is that text that can be modified or is it an industry-standard response (i.e. provided by APACS)? If it's not an industry-standard response, what do you expect an automated system to look for?

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Pint

Re: Outstanding

@sp why would it be daft to have a human look at the reason for every declined direct debit? Do Virgin have such a high volume of declined payments that they couldn't cope? Is it old-fashioned to have humans actually doing a job?

At the present time, humans are still much better at context than computers.

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Re: Outstanding

"At the present time, humans are still much better at context than computers."

And also much more expensive, which is why they tend to be eschewed in favour of electronic slaves

For the record, I'm not exonerating Virgin Media, I'm just accusing them of incompetence rather than being money grabbing unsympathetic bastards

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Pirate

Re: Outstanding

I'm changing my surname to "Deceased" :)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Outstanding

Tim, as much as you would think it would make sense to have a team of people looking at why DDs were declined, it does not make commercial sense to, especially considering that most companies (including media providers like Virgin Media) retry again a few days later.

I'm not saying that under no circumstances should humans be used (I would in fact very much prefer seeing human intervention/supervision on failed payments), but in this world of counting and chasing pennies for the bottom line, having to pay someone £20K/year or more to do this 'just in case' is not a viable business case.

Sorry, but that's the reality.

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Pint

Re: Outstanding

@sp I'm not convinced that it would actually have much commercial impact to have a human review all declined payments and indeed may have a positive effect on the bottom line if you end up with improved customer relations and goodwill. Unless there are an enormous number it wouldn't be a fulltime job for even one person.

For example, you have a report onscreen where you can see a list of summary details, the bank's message and the computer system's proposed action. Scan the list for anomalies, examine in further detail any account that stands out and if necessary take out of the automatic system. Probably take an hour or two a day at most. To cut it down even further, you could restrict the accounts reviewed to just those where the bank's message was one that the computer did not have a programmed action for.

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FAIL

RE: ... is not a viable business case.

Then, what is?? It sounds like typical shitty customer service - period.

Back in February, my ISP tried to sneak through a rate increase through two separate methods.

One was a direct increase, one that you could not do much about, except cancel their service.

The other was through a modem rental fee that was applied to any ISP supplied modems. Quick calculations showed that I could get a better modem for about what a year's worth of rental costs would be. So, I returned the dammed thing, on February 27.

Now, do you think that my going in to their office and returning the modem would get it removed from my account, and not incur a new modem rental fee, then I have some Florida swampland I could sell you. Because IT DID NOT!!!!!

The March bill came in with the fee for a modem that was returned before the beginning of the month; which resulted in my having to take the time to call up those incompetent bastards and complain. Their customer disservice representative did remove the charge, but he failed to remove the code indicating that I had one of their modems from my account.

I found that out this month when April's bill arrived, the same shit AGAIN!!!!! Again, I had to call and complain. This is behavior that typifies large companies - lazy, incompetent customer disservice departments.

<------------ So, Brighthouse, that one's for you.

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Unhappy

Re: Outstanding

"I presume that as we speak, some poor Indian is having to trawl through all the declined messages every received and add filters to the system to make sure that any Account Holder is Dead messages are handled in a more sensitive manner,"

You make it sound like that's a bad thing for vermin Virgin to do.

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Re: Outstanding

There is no need to go through all DDs that got declined, just the ones with messages the system didn't manage to parse on it's own.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Outstanding

Tim, unfortunately logic (which is what you're using) does not factor into some of the boneheaded decisions made by managers on the quest for 'improving the bottom line'. Customer goodwill does not have an immediate monetary value, and does not factor into equations (although, as you so eloquently point out, it should).

Your example would assume that someone actually wrote a piece of software that allows you to do this kind of job elegantly and efficiently. The reality is unfortunately somewhat different.

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Go

Re: RE: ... is not a viable business case.

Ah yes, the same Brighthouse where the billing system has special code to defeat any attempt to paste in your checking account number and routing number, or your name (which must match their records exactly, including misspelling, punctuation and mis-capitalization)

The same Brighthouse where I filed an FCC complaint about them highjacking my DNS, causing SAMBA to break, then they said "hey, you can use Google's DNS, case closed!" and I had to reopen it.

The same Brighthouse where I couldn't view youtube videos w/o insane amounts of buffering (and other network issues) so I opened a VPN account and started naming'n'shaming on Twitter where Brighthouse started following me and anything I tweeted about suddenly stopped being an issue, despite all the tech support tickets I filed being totally ignored.

Then we can discuss Verizon, where my attempts to pay my ETF 1) in-store when I closed my account, 2) through the website, 3) over the phone, and 4) back at the store again were all rejected until I filed yet another FCC complaint.

I am watching Virgin get smacked about with no small amount of glee.

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Coat

Re: Outstanding

> humans are still much better at context than computers.

I can see some semi-literate minimum-wage type looking at and and thinking:

"payment - late

customer - late.

looks OK to me."

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Re: RE: ... is not a viable business case.

@ Fatman

I've had a similar issue with a phone I returned to Vodafone but they failed to cancel the contract on it and proceeded to set up a direct debit and bill me (which they couldn't because I cancelled the DD). Talking to their customer service was completely futile, the only action I took that got a response was a small claims court action after months of frustration. I had to take action because they put a black mark on my credit record, which was eventually removed and returned to spotlessness.

Keep a log of everything you have communicated with that lot, all calls, letters and time taken (keep as much proof as possible) then send them a small claims court action for recompense of your expenses and time. Claim for double your hourly working rate (after all it's essentially overtime running around after their failures), and also state that you want the system corrected to not have this problem again.

After you have sent in the small claims - sit back and relax as the company shit themselves and solve all your problems, paying you for the privilege (accept a smaller sum than you originally claimed, to show yourself as a reasonable person).

Above all don't let it get your blood pressure up too much, I let that happen and it's no good at all. You will get justice if you have the patience.

https://www.moneyclaim.gov.uk/web/mcol/welcome

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Facepalm

Re: Outstanding

In 2007 Virgin TV had 3.6 million subscribers, since the numbers of decliens aren't known publicly. I have worked at a monthly subscription based ISP previously the number of declined charges we had were more than 1% of the subscriber base (I don't know the exact numbers but more than 1% and less than 10%), so with ~3.6 million subs no matter where you are in the range (1-10%) we are talking a rather large numbers of declines monthly (30-300k per month), which would be something rather costly to deal with by hand just to catch the odd unformatted text string .

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Re: Outstanding

When I did tech support for ATT DSL 1/4 of my day was spent reconnecting people that were disconnected for non payment.

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Re: Outstanding

Most interfaces to BACS work in the same way. When a payment is declined a reason code is returned. One of the values for this code is definitely Payer Deceased (I have set up interfaces to these systems myself)

Most Billing/Payment processing software lets the Operator perform different actions based on the code.

For example, insufficient funds might trigger a resweep. A similar message is sent if the account details have changed (to let the operator update their records).

Payer Deceased should of course route it to the manual team, and cancel the DD agreement so no more payments.

Given this team exists, this is probably how it's supposed to work. I'm guessing a bug got in the way...

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Joke

Re: Outstanding

> humans are still much better at context than computers.

I can see some semi-literate minimum-wage type looking at and and thinking: "payment - late - customer - late. - looks OK to me."

That's not human, that's Magrathean.

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Re: Outstanding

1) Logistics of scale.

2) Probably.

3) Yes, for this sort of thing.

4) Yes, but also much more expensive.

What is not mentioned in the article is, when, or even if, any family member actually contacted Virgin to inform them of their customer's death. Perhaps I missed mention of it, if so, apologies tendered. If not, then the son-in-law is being a right prick about it all.

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@TheTick RE: Small Claims

So far i've been able to avoid the small claims courts for idiot companies..

Usually after the 3rd unhelpful call I say something along the lines of "Either you sort the problem out or I'll be forced to contact trading standards(or whatever the relevant Quango is) and then consider taking you to the small claims court to get satisfaction"

I say 3rd unhelpful, as I acknowledge sometimes issues take time to fix and can't be done in 1-2 phone calls

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Re: I'm guessing a bug got in the way

That was my assumption as well. And I'll take it a step further. I'll bet the bug is with the bank code, not the Virgin processing. Because what we have here is one person making a huge hoopla about something that is bound to happen from time to time. If the bug were on the Virgin side, they'd be flooded with the issue.

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Boffin

Re: Outstanding

"There's a 'dead person' identifier on the letter, in which case Virgin's systems ought to have recognised it and passed it to a human to deal with. Unless, that is, they don't have any humans doing humane stuff."

But their systems can't recognise it as the account holder being deceased, they can only recognise it as the bank account holder being deceased. The person owning the bank account and the person owning the Virgin account can be two different people.

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WTF?

What are they sorry for?

Do I get this right, Virgin Media is sorry that they included the bank response ("Payer deceased") on the bill? Not that they didn't realise their client was dead and they charged him for late payment.

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Re: What are they sorry for?

It appears so.

For all we know the entity at fault is the bank for changing what they respond with when a direct debit is cancelled. So any prior checks that were in place, e.g. "if decline_reason contains 'dead' then escalate_to_bereavement_team" were flummoxed because the bank using "deceased" all of a sudden, rather than "dead". I wouldn't be surprised with the IT cowboys working in banks if these systems didn't include an infallible error code so string matching could be avoided.

You can't blame an automated system doing what it was programmed to do, when something not under its control changes. OTOH I would presume the bank would have notified its clients of the API change well in advance, so it's a management failure within Virgin Media that failed to get their processing systems updated at the correct time.

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Re: What are they sorry for?

Unlikely. The error codes in the responses (ARUDD files) a single character code. There is a fairly standard list of values.

They probably managed some sort of regression...

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Unhappy

When my mother died

I informed them.

They sent me her unpaid bill.

Other companies may do this too. However, it is something I would never do.

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Devil

Re: When my mother died

Unfortunately, dying is not a way to escape debts. Whether or not you agree with this, the cold facts of the matter are that your debts as well as your assets make up your estate, and that is all inherited by your next of kin.

I'm not saying that companies shouldn't act more considerately, and perhaps allow retrospective cancellation of the account from the date of death (without applying any silly 30 day notice periods or anything), but unpaid bills need to be paid regardless.

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Gav

Re: When my mother died

The issue here is not the bill, it's the fine Virgin Media issued which was dumb and insensitive.

If someone is provided a service and subsequently dies, that doesn't mean the provider of the service doesn't get paid. They are still owed by the person's estate. You probably had probate on your mother's estate, so they were entirely correct to send the bill to you.

It's not pleasant during a difficult time, but it has to be done.

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Terminator

Re: When my mother died

You are aware that these bills are never seen by a human being, they're created, printed and posted by an automated system.

That system applies fines for missing a payment automatically.

The system can only deal with what it knows. It hadn't been programmed to check direct debit refused due to death reasons - perhaps it's a new bank feature to include that text in the direct debit failure message. Integration of many many different systems run by different companies is not easy.

And the DD would have failed after his death, and the contract ends at the point of death, the fine would have been reversed anyway, coming after the date of death. One phone call and it's resolved unless the customer service agent is inept.

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@insanity Re: When my mother died

" ... your debts as well as your assets make up your estate, and that is all inherited by your next of kin."

Your statement implies that debts are inherited - they are not. Any creditor can make a claim against the estate of a deceased person but the claim is against the estate, not the person who inherits the estate. If your mother/father dies, with zero formal/recorded assets and debts of £500 (lets say), then you, the child of the deceased, do not owe the creditors anything.

That exact situation happened to me, when my mother died and I just ignored all the letters that had been sent to her (at her old address) and forwarded to me. There is nothing the creditors can do.

If my mother had died with £1000 in the bank, then I would have been morally and legally obliged to pay the debts before keeping the remainder for myself. I did consider writing to the solicitors and debt collection agency, and gas/electric companies, and Virgin Media, and the local council, and the water board.........., but I knew they would then have my home address and would send their crap through the mail to me. So I just ignored them and had a lot less work to do.

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@insanity Re: When my mother died

I see your point and the that bill was directed against her estate rather than me personally.

However, we are talking about a company with annual profits in the millions and a debt of £97 and some pennies run up by a private individual who had no savings and was living on a pension, not a business or corporation.

If companies actually employed people and not machines to run their finances and treated their customers as people and not account numbers perhaps we as the consumer would have more respect for them. And, perhaps situations such as this would not arise in the first place. To large corporations we are not people, we are sources of income for some investor/shareholder to whom all this kind of thing is just a game.

I really despair of a capitalist system that does not empathise or understand that customers are more than just numbers on a balance sheet, they are people that feel, bleed and hurt.

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Mushroom

"You are aware that these bills are never seen by a human being"

Unlike Atos reports, which have on several occasions now declared that a dead person is fit for work.

Mind you, given Atos' track record for recommending that the benefits of critically disabled or terminally ill people be stopped, I don't think being compiled by a staff member rules out their never having been seen by a human being.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: When my mother died

"perhaps allow retrospective cancellation of the account from the date of death (without applying any silly 30 day notice periods or anything)"

I liked the idea of "Please take notice that I shall be dead in 30 days, so please take notice that I wish to cancel my subscription".

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Re: ... unless the customer service agent is inept.

Unfortunately, at too many $BIGCORPs, that is a job requirement.

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Pint

Re: When my mother died

However, if the estate has no assets, the bills have to be written off because, at least in California, creditors cannot go after the heirs to collect... They're simply SOL...

Have to pretend that's a wine glass because El Reg won't give me a glass of cabernet sauvignon... or merlot.

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Re: If companies actually employed people and not machines...have more respect for them.

No you wouldn't. You'd bitch incessantly about how f***ing greedy and insensitive those captialist bastards were.

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Holmes

Until consumers use the weapon of choice to hold these providers to higher standards of behaviour, then they (we) will continue to be shafted with near-criminal fines/charges, and p1ss-poor customer service. Ala Energy, Water, Mobile Phones etc. etc.

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I can't afford to die.

When my brother died it was the media companies who fought the hardest to get not only the last bill but the cancallation fees paid as well. They only gave up when we pointed out he was a young man with no estate for them to sue.

Which reminds me that when my granny died her credit card company sold the (tiny) debt onto a debt collection agency that used a solicitor to send threatening letters to the whole family implying we were all liable for her debts (which had magically inflated due to their unavoidable costs). Took a few words with the law society to sort that one out.

There is a whole subsection of various industries who try to exploit the death of people and the grief of those close to them. They deserve all the press they get.

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I don't think much of the company that bills me for my water consumption.

What should I do - take my custom elsewhere?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I can't afford to die.

Similar scumbag treatment when my father died. A well known credit card company starting with B weren't content with waiting to be paid, told me I was liable for payment, and the bank associated with said card company withdrew my current account as a result. I was 18 at the time. I've never used that bank since, and by recent headlines, they're still playing those games, only at the level of the nation-state.

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Re: I can't afford to die.

If possible, especially if the amounts of money are small, it is easier just to pretend to be the person or say that you are doing things on their behalf than to tell bureaucrats that someone had died or that they have Alzheimers and you have lasting power of attorney for them. If you tell them that there is some legal piece of paper they will stop doing anything until they have the original. Spoken from experience.

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Flame

"Corporations [...] recognise that everyone needs a Twitter and a Facebook account"

Do they? I don't.

Maybe they should concentrate their customer service efforts in other areas.

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Re: "Corporations [...] recognise that everyone needs a Twitter and a Facebook account"

There's a big difference (at least in expense) between having a competent customer service department and having Jeff in Sales set up one of them Twitty account things because he knows that computer stuff.

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Re: "Corporations [...] recognise that everyone needs a Twitter and a Facebook account"

But as soon as something blows up in public it's amazing how quickly Jeff in sales can get things passed onto the right people, on the other hand if you use traditional methods you're banging your head against a brick wall. Should I have to solve every problem in a blaze of publicity? Good customer service can be done. Orange managed it, until France Telecom came along.

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Anonymous Coward

A debt is still a debt.

Death is no respite from paying bills, I have previously pursued a customers estate for payment. Just because someone dies, doesnt mean all debts are cancelled - not so sure how rolling contracts are affected tho.

Anon because Im a cold hearted ruthless bastard.

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Meh

Re: A debt is still a debt.

I believe the debt can come from the deceased's estate, but it can't go any further than that.

So if you sold someone who died something, then you get the payment from their estate, or maybe you get the thing back.

I guess that for rolling contracts the company will get the phone/tablet/whatever back, as death is a reasonable reason for contract termination at any point (or the company should suck up the loss due to their subsidised device sales model). But I can believe that scummy companies will still try to apply termination fees in such a case. However the internet says: "I can confirm that upon receipt of the death certificate the contract is terminated immediately and all charges credited from the date of death."

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