Ofcom says it is concerned some customers are «not being treated fairly» over the amount they are being charged to keep old email addresses.
This happens when customers continue to use an old email address from an internet service provider they have since left.
Many people who subsequently switched have paid hundreds of pounds just to keep using their old address as before.
Ofcom’s investigation was prompted by a Money Box report earlier this year.
«They’ve got you over a barrel»
Ofcom also found most people who use an address provided by their broadband company are former BT customers.
BT says if customers want to switch provider but keep hold of their old BT email address they’re charged £7.50 per month to be able to access and use their account like they used to, including accessing it using an app.
That’s what happened to Iain Stuart from Cardiff.
He said that first BT started charging him £1.60 per month, «then it went up to £5 and it’s now £7.50.»
«My feeling on it is was [BT] basically had you over a barrel.»
Like many other people Mr Stuart has registered his email address with dozens of websites including banks, building societies, utility companies, online shops and social media accounts – not to mention all his friends and family who use it.
«To change something I’ve been using for no end of different things… when you start looking at it, if you went through the whole lot of them, and I’ve looked at the logistics of changing my email address, it’s not something I want to waste my time doing.
«The alternative is to pay £90 per year. I can afford to pay but I shouldn’t have to pay and I don’t want to pay.»
BT says it offers a free service for people to access their old email address – but that has to be done by logging on via a web browser which doesn’t allow people to get emails via apps on their mobile phones.
That free, web browser-only service is also not something that appeals to Mr Stuart.
«I just want to be able to use my email account as I have done for years and years.»
Put off switching?
One in six UK adults say they’re likely to be put off switching broadband provider out of fear of losing their email address or being charged to keep it, according to research by comparethemarket.com.
It’s this point which Ofcom is concerned about.
Christine Clement says she’s been with other broadband providers for years but is still paying BT for an email address she first started using around the year 2000.
«I fail to see what service I get for paying £7.50 per month.
«When [the charges] first came in £1.60 seemed reasonable but £7.50 per month is £90 per year and that does seem quite a large amount,» she says.
As for the option of stop paying the charges and lose her email address Ms Clement says it’s something she’d never be able to do.
«I must have at least 40-plus accounts I’ve registered my email with. That’s quite a lot to change and that’s without even notifying friends and family.
«It would be time consuming and it’s just something I’d never do. But why should I have to pay extortionate prices to keep the address?»
BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media supply 90% of the home broadband market in the UK and BT is not the only provider which charges customers if they want to keep old addresses and use them as before if people switch provider.
Who charges what?
- BT: £7.50 a month to maintain normal access (although users can retain their BT email addresses for nothing with limitations, including only being able to log on using a browser)
- TalkTalk: £5 a month (or £50 for an entire year if paid in advance)
- Virgin: Account deleted 90 days after disconnection
- Sky: Users can keep old email address free after switching provider
In a statement BT said: «If [customers] switch broadband providers, they can continue to use the BT email service, free of charge, through a web browser.
«This version includes unlimited storage, online virus protection and a UK based helpdesk.
«The email service with premium features is also available to customers if they switch provider, and additionally includes multiple inboxes and access through email apps, for £7.50 a month.»
‘Not being treated fairly’
Ofcom told Money Box: «We’re concerned about any industry practices that could put people off from switching, so we’ve been gathering more information from providers about their different approaches to this issue.
«We have concerns that some customers are not being treated fairly, and will be raising these with providers.»
You can hear more on BBC Radio 4’s Money Box programme by listening again here.