Consumer vulnerability


What is consumer vulnerability?

Some people’s ability to participate in communications markets and society is affected by factors such as their age, disability, income or geographical location. Life events such as bereavement or illness can temporarily reduce people’s ability to participate in society and/or increase their dependence on certain communications services.

Vulnerability is about people’s circumstances, which can change over time. In relation to communications, it can have a range of negative consequences:

  • People may suffer financial detriment, for example if they are a victim of mis-selling or if they are unable to access the best deals
  • They may become isolated if they are unable to keep in touch with family and friends
  • They may not be able to participate as fully in society as they would wish.

Legal framework

Ofcom has specific duties under the Communications Act to take account of particular groups of citizens and consumers who may be vulnerable to harm. These include the requirement for Ofcom to have regard to the needs and interests of those who are disabled, elderly, on low incomes or living in rural areas, as well as to the vulnerability of any others whose circumstances appear to put them in need of special protection. Examples of where Ofcom has intervened to promote participation and address consumer vulnerability of such consumers include:

  • Ensuring that communication providers offer services for disabled consumers such as text relay for deaf people, free directory enquiries for blind people and priority fault repair for people who depend on the phone because of disability. On 1 October 2018, these measures were extended to cover disabled people’s broadband service as well as landline and mobile services.
  • Improving the rules to require all UK communications providers to have clear, effective policies and procedures for identifying vulnerable customers – such as people with learning or communication difficulties or those suffering physical or mental illness or bereavement – to ensure they are treated fairly and appropriately. The changes came into effect on 1 October 2018.
  • Ensuring the provision of subtitling, sign language and audio description on television, so that people with hearing or visual impairments can understand and enjoy television.
  • Requiring (under the Universal Service Obligation ) consumers to be given connection to landline telephone services on reasonable request at uniform prices, irrespective of geographical location
  • Requiring social tariffs to be available for people on low incomes (Recently BT and KCOM added a basic broadband offering to their landline social tariff)
  • Penalising companies guilty of making silent and abandoned calls

Ofcom also has a duty to promote media literacy under Section 11 of the Communications Act 2003, and carries this out predominantly through research that addresses, among other areas, the differences in media use and attitudes by age and socio-economic group, highlighting to stakeholders where they might how best target their resources. Our media literary research is a vehicle to enable stakeholders to target their resources effectively, using our research as a core source of information about the changing media landscape and the relative levels of participation among particular demographic groups.

Ofcom works to ensure vulnerable people are protected and can participate in the communications sector

Examples of our work include:

  • Ensuring consumers making calls over broadband can make emergency calls in the event of a power cut at their premises. Traditional landline telephone service uses power provided over the copper line that connects to the telephone exchange. When there is a power cut, it is still possible for people using a corded phone to make emergency calls from their landline. However, for customers using ‘Voice over Internet Protocol’ (VoIP) technology, which allows people to make landline calls over a broadband connection, this facility is not available without additional protection measures being put in place.
  • Understanding why some consumers may face difficulties engaging in communications markets and identifying, developing and implementing solutions that help consumers to engage. The initial focus is on “end of contract notifications” – whereby providers would proactively inform customers when they are approaching or are at the end of their minimum contractual term.
  • Consulting on capping directory enquiry (118) call costs as we have found that as charges have been increasing, there has been a decrease in the advertising of directory enquiry services and their associated prices. This has resulted in poor price transparency and consumers paying much more than they expect.
  • Publishing guidance on  
    • Power of attorney
    • how to manage debt
    • how communications providers should handle complaints with particular requirements in respect of disabled consumers and that a reasonable complaints escalation process should include procedures for frontline staff to identify and treat appropriately complaints from consumers ‘that are vulnerable in any way’
    • Protecting vulnerable consumers from fixed line mis-selling through regulation that states it would be inappropriate for sales representatives to take advantage of vulnerable customers – we give the examples of those who are elderly or whose first language is not English
    • nuisance calls in an Easy Read format as we are mindful that certain groups of consumers may be more vulnerable to nuisance calls
  • Collecting and analysing data about complaints to our contact centre and carrying out research designed to increase our understanding of consumer vulnerability. Communications services are increasingly essential for citizens and consumers. People in vulnerable circumstances may particularly depend on certain communications services, for example if they cannot easily leave their homes because of disability or illness. The Access and Inclusion report presents a range of data on the availability, take-up, use and affordability of communications services.
  • Requiring a range of measures to be in place to ensure that no one is prevented from making an emergency call because of their circumstances. For example, so people can call the emergency services over other available mobile networks when out of range of their home network and deaf and speech-impaired people can use text relay or emergency SMS to call 999 or 112.

External links

To share and improve our knowledge and understanding of consumer vulnerability we engage with a range of stakeholders including government, consumer groups and other regulators. We worked with UK Regulators’ Network (UKRN) to prepare a leaflet about services for older and disabled customers in regulated sectors. Ofcom is an affiliate member of the Essential Services Action Network (ESAN). ESAN’s purpose is to seek to ensure that essential services meet the needs of consumers, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.