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Should non-payment of a mobile phone bill be a criminal offence?
Arran Cameron 1100402286
Joined 31/03/2015 - 415 Posts
Question
It used to be known as abstraction of electricity on a landline telephone network but it might be better referred to as abstraction of EM waves or photons, depending on how you view the wave particle duality, on a mobile network.

A friend racked up a mobile phone bill of nearly £2000 as a result of exceeding his data allowance whilst abroad back in 2017. He changed his network provider then cancelled the direct debit resulting in this bill going unpaid to today. It's not actually illegal to do this as all the old network provider can do is demand the payment, as a civil matter, and ruin his credit rating. He claims that unlike an unpaid gas or electricity bill, an unpaid phone bill has not consumed any of the earth's precious natural resources apart from a bit of electricity that cost only a tiny fraction of the value of the bill.

A local bobby disagrees and says that theft is theft regardless of whether it's a tangible object or a non-tangible service, so the criminal should be brought to justice and jailed.

Does the IET have a position regarding the legal status of unpaid phone bills and whether or not refusal to pay should be a criminal offence? 
35 Replies
Andy Millar 33788107
Joined 28/05/2002 - 1670 Posts
I vaguely remember there's something about you need to "have made reasonable efforts" to return property. Which it sounds like they did in this case! I looked at this quite a few years ago when a mail order company sent me something by mistake.

I did discover early this year that if HMRC give you a £6,500 rebate by mistake they do ask for it back - but very nicely! Shame they asked the day before my birthday though... Fortunately I hadn't spent it as I thought at the time it was FAR too good to be true.

Cheers,

Andy
Lisa Miles 76762696
Joined 30/05/2003 - 1194 Posts
Going slightly #offtopic but on the same theme:

A colleague in a previous employment was overpaid on their overtime. Someone in payroll misplaced the decimal point and they were paid £104 per hour instead of £10.40 for their overtime hours which meant a huge £624 (should have been £64.20) extra in their pay packet for the month. This happened on three occasions (for three months in a row) overpaying them a total sum of around £1500. On every occasion my colleague contacted the payroll dept to tell them that they had been overpaid, each time being told by the payroll staff that they would sort it out and reclaim it from the next months salary. 

My colleague was also leaving the company (the month after the last over-payment) and for the whole of their last week they were ringing and emailing payroll to tell them that they still needed to reclaim the over-payment.

They never did...

So was my colleague a criminal for keeping the money they overpaid or the payroll dept for making the mistake in the first place and then failing to recover the monies? 

Bear in mind that this happened over 20 years ago now and to date the colleague has never been contacted with a view to recovering the overpaid salary! 

  
Arran Cameron 1100402286
Joined 31/03/2015 - 415 Posts

Andy Millar:

On the other hand, in a previous employment I remember our company solicitor coming in to give the senior management team a briefing on what constituted theft from a company, and saying we should aim to start criminal proceedings against any member of staff who took a pen home from the office. When we said "don't be daft" (and probably "life's too short") he affected to look scared and to said "I'm going to check whether my car still has it's wheels on since you encourage your employees to steal". Hmmm...I'd say these things aren't as black and white as some lawyers (employed and bar-room!) would like them to be. Which is why good lawyers can charge as much as they do. If any Ricardo lawyers are reading this I will admit that I do use work pens for home purposes, I also use home pens for work purposes...
The NHS has its own fraud squad staffed by many former police officers - allegedly asked to resign from the police due to a vindictive attitude or a chip on their shoulder - that cracks down even on minor trivial instances of stolen stationery or fiddled expenses claims in order to justify their existence and put the frighteners on staff. 

Not so long ago they gave a presentation at a local hospital about staff evading car parking charges committing a criminal offence - as opposed to it being a civil offence or a disciplinary matter. Investigations revealed that it is a criminal offence of fraud (overpayment of salary) because the car parking costs are deducted from staff salaries. If however they were paid by direct debit from a bank account then it will only be a civil offence of non-payment of a service charge.
Rob Eagle 29829828
Joined 17/11/2015 - 83 Posts
Morning Benyamin

I am looking for opinions on my post entitled "Straw Poll" in the "Ask the Community" forum.

Rob
Benyamin Davodian 11001211394
Joined 12/06/2019 - 88 Posts
Good morning Rob Eagle,
What do you need an opinion on?
Rob Eagle 29829828
Joined 17/11/2015 - 83 Posts
Would any of you, with an interest in things legal, have a look at my post entitled "Straw Poll" and give me you opinion?

Thanks,

Rob
Sparkingchip 72796851
Joined 18/01/2003 - 2255 Posts
Did you take it, did you mean to take it and did you mean to permanently deprive the owner of their property was how it was explained to me when I did jury service rather a long time ago.

Andy B.
BUFFER 11001213359
Joined 14/11/2019 - 4 Posts
Hallo to ALL - I have now been retired from my previous Employment "The Job" for Twenty (20) Years - Previously in Electronics & Electrics after my Career finished - therefore I speak as I find "Internet Knowledge" The Theft Act 1968 Section(1) dealt with the "Definition(s)" of Theft there are Three (3) A Person DISHONESTLY APPROPRIATES PROPERTY belonging to an OTHER - to prove Theft you have to satisfy those Three (3) criteria - normally now we break down those criteria to explain them in "context" - I won`t bother unless required - Moving on "Abstracting Electricity Sec.13 Theft Act" now you enter the "Minefield" I will only say in the "Electronic World" you are standing in YOUR field under a "Super Grid" Transmission Line(s) & you notice that the waving of the "Old Fluorescent" - IT LIGHTS UP & so you couple up Twenty (20) & illuminate your Barn - Have you committed an Offence YES/NO the answer is YES even though there is NO PHYSICAL CONTACT - in brief YOU form the "MENS REA" the THOUGHT to do WRONG DOING then your Illumination Circuit ABSTRACTS the means to POWER it - YES the "Electro Magnetic Pulse/Wave" Now you can SEE how COMPLICATED this can ALL become - Therefore returning to the initial POST - I am of the Personal View this is first of all not THEFT ask yourself When did the MENS REA appear can you PROVE IT !! - Therefore if this is the case I can only see a "CIVIL DEBT" in other words "NO CRIME" so much for a "Disturbance of the Ether" !! - I will stick to interpreting BS 7671 much more relaxing !! **Here`s one to ponder !! - Tax Evasion or Tax Avoidance - which is Criminal - answer(s) in a "Plain Brown Envelope" !! - Hope this wasn`t to "tiring" !! DM
Sparkingchip 72796851
Joined 18/01/2003 - 2255 Posts
A local garage had a guy who worked in the body shop charged with theft when he went home with a piece of wet and dry abrasive paper that he had been using in the pocket of his work trousers, valued in pennies. 

Andy B 

 
Andy Millar 33788107
Joined 28/05/2002 - 1670 Posts

Roy Bowdler:
In general, my observation is that the Police or DPP, would not wish to get involved, or in many circumstances a wronged party wish to involve them, even if there is evidence of dishonesty, when the issue can be resolved by other means, ie “it’s a civil matter”.  However, I have seen prosecutions for minor “fingers in the till”, “theft from work” and fraud offences, where an employer has wanted to pursue that course of action.   

Yes, that's been my experience too - I suspect a combination of overwork and the fact that proof of active dishonesty is required to get a conviction. I think we've been lucky that in the 25 plus years that my wife has been self employed she's only had one client who tried to evade payment, but even there we didn't even need an actual solicitor's letter, just a letter (drafted with a friend of ours who has legal experience) saying the usual "pay in the next week or I'll pass the matter to my solicitor". 

I've certainly seen a case of an employee jailed for theft of IT equipment - but in that case they worked in procurement and ordered more laptops than they were supposed to, the extra laptops then "disappeared". I suspect dishonesty was pretty easy to prove there!

On the other hand, in a previous employment I remember our company solicitor coming in to give the senior management team a briefing on what constituted theft from a company, and saying we should aim to start criminal proceedings against any member of staff who took a pen home from the office. When we said "don't be daft" (and probably "life's too short") he affected to look scared and to said "I'm going to check whether my car still has it's wheels on since you encourage your employees to steal". Hmmm...I'd say these things aren't as black and white as some lawyers (employed and bar-room!) would like them to be. Which is why good lawyers can charge as much as they do. If any Ricardo lawyers are reading this I will admit that I do use work pens for home purposes, I also use home pens for work purposes...

Cheers,

Andy
Roy Bowdler 603091
Joined 25/07/2008 - 807 Posts
Andy,

Not quite, but a couple of relevant situations that I had some historic involvement in.

Two employees of different businesses colluded in a “sweetheart deal”.  One placed an order purporting to be a Director authorised to do so, induced by a promise of business in return which never materialised.  Despite the order being repudiated when it was discovered (it was for a subscription to a database), the debt was enforced and passed to a “no win no fee” lawyer. Neither dishonest party was prosecuted or the police involved, although the placer of the order was dismissed.

Workers were paid for hours worked and a productivity bonus on the basis of falsified documents (similar to an expenses fiddle). A manager was potentially complicit in “turning a blind eye” , so another manager reported it to a much higher level in the organisation as a “whistle blower”. This left other managers in the chain of command between “under a cloud” which they understandably resented, when it became clear through the circumstances what had happened.  I can’t say much more because it set off a chain of events leading to a criminal conviction and parliamentary inquiry, completely unrelated to the original “fiddle”, which was dealt with through employer’s disciplinary procedures.   

I engaged a self-employed builder to work on a domestic extension, when I ended his engagement on the basis of poor performance, he came round some days later, according to witnesses seemingly under the influence of something and smashed some windows in revenge. The Police were involved and he was prosecuted, but he only entered a guilty plea at the last possible minute. We never saw a penny of the compensation ordered  by the court.       

In general, my observation is that the Police or DPP, would not wish to get involved, or in many circumstances a wronged party wish to involve them, even if there is evidence of dishonesty, when the issue can be resolved by other means, ie “it’s a civil matter”.  However, I have seen prosecutions for minor “fingers in the till”, “theft from work” and fraud offences, where an employer has wanted to pursue that course of action.   

 
Andy Millar 33788107
Joined 28/05/2002 - 1670 Posts

Sparkingchip:
Anyway, why should not paying a mobile phone bill be a criminal offence any more than not paying an electricians bill for work completed?

I don't think it is (or isn't, whichever way around that works!). But I suspect that to get the police and CPS at all interested there would have to be clear likelihood of evidence of deliberate intention to avoid payment: e.g. in the electrician's case if the non-payee claimed that the work wasn't done right (so they weren't going to pay for it) it would probably just trawl through the civil courts for years making money for the legal teams. But I can imagine that if several suppliers / contractors could show that the same person had not paid them it might be possible to get a criminal prosecution started. Anyone here got examples of criminal cases brought against non-payers of small businesses or sole traders?

Thanks,

Andy
Sparkingchip 72796851
Joined 18/01/2003 - 2255 Posts
Anyway, why should not paying a mobile phone bill be a criminal offence any more than not paying an electricians bill for work completed?

Andy B 
Sparkingchip 72796851
Joined 18/01/2003 - 2255 Posts

Rob Eagle:
The old Strowger equipment, that was lovely stuff.

At primary school I shared a double desk with one of the twin girls who lived at the telephone exchange, because her mother was the chief operator. I lost contact with her and her sister after a new automatic exchange was built and this new-fangled modern equipment was installed making the old exchange and the girls mother redundant, resulting in no more going to birthday parties at the village telephone exchange with the kids from school.

The new exchange was next to the scout hut and the engineers let us look around on a number of occasions when they saw us looking through the windows, I also helped my granddad who had the grass cutting contract for a number of local exchanges and again used to get inside them for a cup of tea .

So many things that are not going to happen again, a fourteen year old drinking tea inside a telephone exchange whilst having a break from cutting the grass around it with a petrol engined mower, birthday parties at the telephone exchange 😀

Andy Betteridge
 
Sparkingchip 72796851
Joined 18/01/2003 - 2255 Posts

Arran Cameron:
Another aspect to the non-payment of a phone bill is the lost VAT revenue for the government. Could it be possible to prosecute the customer for tax evasion?

Some years ago a builder converting some barns into house dug a big hole and buried all the rubbish.

a neighbour reported him and he was taken to court for tax avoidance, as he had not paid the waste tax, rather than an environmental crime.

Andy Betteridge.
Arran Cameron 1100402286
Joined 31/03/2015 - 415 Posts
Another aspect to the non-payment of a phone bill is the lost VAT revenue for the government. Could it be possible to prosecute the customer for tax evasion?
Simon Barker 22060613
Joined 17/09/2001 - 611 Posts

Roy Bowdler:
There are working examples of Uniselectors at Bletchley Park, I went last time on an IET local network visit, which seem to come up every year or two.

I was trained to fault-find on our local private network telephone system (a power station) and later HV Grid protection equipment, which relied on pilot lines, usually rented from Post Office Telecom.  At that time relay based control systems were ubiquitous, although there was one system with printed circuit board based logic control, several large cabinets to achieve what a small PLC would do nowadays. I should relate that there was a real sense of satisfaction in identifying faults, using a combination of schematic drawings and often observations and a bit of “tinkering”.  The results could involve first having to free people trapped in a lift 150ft up, or safely dealing with a several ton load stuck in a dangerous position.

Returning to the main subject of non-payment , in my laypersons opinion, to be considered “criminal” there has to be clear prima facie evidence of an intent to dishonestly deprive some else of their property (or revenue).  There are many areas of service provision where suppliers seek to be exploitative or maximise profit and consumers legitimately seek to avoid being exploited. Hence various consumer protection legislation to balance the rights of the less powerful against exploitative practice.  As a “civil” issue (ie a commercial dispute) popular consumerism, led by sections of the media have become a well established counterbalance to exploitative or incompetent practices.

Touching on traffic or parking penalties. I was a “victim” of this several years ago.  I made a business visit by car with two colleagues to a facility in suburban West London. My two colleagues had travelled by Train/Tube, so at the end I offered to drop them off at the nearest station.  I was unfamiliar with the area as were they, but they recognised the return route and guided me. As I emerged from under a bridge they said “we’re here” so I slowed carefully pulled over and dropped them off. Unbeknown to me at the time, I had infringed a thick yellow line “bus stop” and was sent a penalty charge by the local authority.  Disputing the penalty, I was sent CCTV evidence (the camera seemed to be controlled by an operator) which showed clearly that a pedestrian had walked into the road from the opposite side taking my attention and that my rear seat passenger had begun to open the car door as I was still moving. I was stationary for less than 20 seconds and no other vehicle was nearby as a crossing behind me was on red. 

My appeal was rejected as was eventually the intervention of my MP.  The appeal adjudicator stated that my evidence was simply “mitigation” which was not something that they could take into consideration.  This in my opinion breaches the common law principle that the reasonable actions of a reasonable person are not a “crime”.  Obviously I did not commit a “crime” , but public bodies were still allowed to punish me.  It doesn’t matter about me and on the principle of “swings and roundabouts”, I have probably got away with many motoring infringements over the years. Police discretion and public toleration are quite important principles of how the law is actually applied.  Perhaps if money were no object, I could have employed a “Mr Loophole” lawyer, but it obviously wasn’t worth it. Had I impeded a bus, then my actions, albeit innocent, could be argued to be deserving of a penalty in the “public interest”.  


My concern is that powerful exploitative parties, in this case a London Local Authority and the legal system that constrains them is unbalanced such that evidence in defence can simply be dismissed as “mitigation” and therefore inadmissible.  Any thoughts welcome!               

 

Common sense and reasonableness by the people enforcing laws is a good thing.

But  "the reasonable actions of a reasonable person are not a “crime” " is a huge slippery slope.  Is a hungry person taking food from a shop a crime?  Bypassing the electricity meter because you can't afford to pay the bills?

Did you present any evidence to show that you didn't stop in a bus stop?  If not, then your evidence was just mitigation, not really a defence.
 
Roy Bowdler 603091
Joined 25/07/2008 - 807 Posts
There are working examples of Uniselectors at Bletchley Park, I went last time on an IET local network visit, which seem to come up every year or two.

I was trained to fault-find on our local private network telephone system (a power station) and later HV Grid protection equipment, which relied on pilot lines, usually rented from Post Office Telecom.  At that time relay based control systems were ubiquitous, although there was one system with printed circuit board based logic control, several large cabinets to achieve what a small PLC would do nowadays. I should relate that there was a real sense of satisfaction in identifying faults, using a combination of schematic drawings and often observations and a bit of “tinkering”.  The results could involve first having to free people trapped in a lift 150ft up, or safely dealing with a several ton load stuck in a dangerous position.

Returning to the main subject of non-payment , in my laypersons opinion, to be considered “criminal” there has to be clear prima facie evidence of an intent to dishonestly deprive some else of their property (or revenue).  There are many areas of service provision where suppliers seek to be exploitative or maximise profit and consumers legitimately seek to avoid being exploited. Hence various consumer protection legislation to balance the rights of the less powerful against exploitative practice.  As a “civil” issue (ie a commercial dispute) popular consumerism, led by sections of the media have become a well established counterbalance to exploitative or incompetent practices.

Touching on traffic or parking penalties. I was a “victim” of this several years ago.  I made a business visit by car with two colleagues to a facility in suburban West London. My two colleagues had travelled by Train/Tube, so at the end I offered to drop them off at the nearest station.  I was unfamiliar with the area as were they, but they recognised the return route and guided me. As I emerged from under a bridge they said “we’re here” so I slowed carefully pulled over and dropped them off. Unbeknown to me at the time, I had infringed a thick yellow line “bus stop” and was sent a penalty charge by the local authority.  Disputing the penalty, I was sent CCTV evidence (the camera seemed to be controlled by an operator) which showed clearly that a pedestrian had walked into the road from the opposite side taking my attention and that my rear seat passenger had begun to open the car door as I was still moving. I was stationary for less than 20 seconds and no other vehicle was nearby as a crossing behind me was on red. 

My appeal was rejected as was eventually the intervention of my MP.  The appeal adjudicator stated that my evidence was simply “mitigation” which was not something that they could take into consideration.  This in my opinion breaches the common law principle that the reasonable actions of a reasonable person are not a “crime”.  Obviously I did not commit a “crime” , but public bodies were still allowed to punish me.  It doesn’t matter about me and on the principle of “swings and roundabouts”, I have probably got away with many motoring infringements over the years. Police discretion and public toleration are quite important principles of how the law is actually applied.  Perhaps if money were no object, I could have employed a “Mr Loophole” lawyer, but it obviously wasn’t worth it. Had I impeded a bus, then my actions, albeit innocent, could be argued to be deserving of a penalty in the “public interest”.  


My concern is that powerful exploitative parties, in this case a London Local Authority and the legal system that constrains them is unbalanced such that evidence in defence can simply be dismissed as “mitigation” and therefore inadmissible.  Any thoughts welcome!               

 
Arran Cameron 1100402286
Joined 31/03/2015 - 415 Posts

Rob Eagle:
The old Strowger equipment, that was lovely stuff.

It most certainly was. You haven't lived unless you have seen and heard a Strowger telephone exchange in operation.

The 'black box' I previously mentioned is for real. I have tested one out on a final selector and I can assure you that they do work.

 
Andy Millar 33788107
Joined 28/05/2002 - 1670 Posts

Rob Eagle:
The old Strowger equipment, that was lovely stuff.

Personally I used to hate trying to service it while the uniselectors either side of the one you were working on were "live" - trying to work round cleaning all the contacts with the adjacent ones suddenly lurching off in random directions was downright scary! (Harking back to my BBC days.)

As pure "artistic" bits of engineering they were lovely beasts though!

For those who don't know what on earth we're talking about, short US video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcvA5q8yOTo
And longer UK one:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owAjCeHRgMA
That's why the dials of old dial telephones turned back so slowly, so that the uniselectors could keep up with the pulses.

Cheers,

Andy
Rob Eagle 29829828
Joined 17/11/2015 - 83 Posts
The old Strowger equipment, that was lovely stuff.
Arran Cameron 1100402286
Joined 31/03/2015 - 415 Posts

Alasdair Anderson:
Most of the contributors to this forum are not employed by the IET and not in a position to answer to the IET's position, myself included. However I would expect that such behaviour would be considered contrary to the Engineering Council's Statement of Ethical Principles which are endorsed by the IET.
Alasdair

If that is the case, then does it also apply to non-payment of parking tickets issued by APCOA or city councils (they are not fines!!!) ?

 
Arran Cameron 1100402286
Joined 31/03/2015 - 415 Posts

Andy Millar:
I suspect a modern law (criminal or case law) would be more specifically about defrauding the provider.

The problem with this is that fraud is generally regarded as a more severe offence than theft. Therefore refusing to pay a £2000 phone bill could perversely end up as a more severe offence than stealing the tranceiver unit from a base station worth ten times as much  - plus all the inconvenience to users in the area.

I can vaguely remember reading something about a person who installed a 'black box' in their landline phone back in the era of Strowger telephone exchanges that resulted in callers having free calls (although outgoing calls were still charged unless the phone at the other end was also fitted with a 'black box') and how Post Office Telephones was considering charging him with fraud as it was impossible to charge him or the callers (who should have paid the bill but didn't) with theft. Because calls were not logged it was impossible to determine the amount of lost revenue.

 
Andy Millar 33788107
Joined 28/05/2002 - 1670 Posts
Hi Lisa,

The keyword I think is "dishonestly"

A person who—
(a) dishonestly obtains an electronic communications service, and
(b) does so with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service,
is guilty of an offence.

So I think that means they have to have actively done something to access wifi (in this example) which they know they should not have done. Note also part (b) with the word "intent" - so they knew they were supposed to pay for access and found a way to avoid it.

Which seems to make sense!

Oddly I can't find out anywhere what persuaded the court in R v Straszkiewicz that there was dishonesty in the access and intent to avoid to avoid payment. As it's such a well cited case I'd have expected there to be more written about the details.

Why do BT insist on putting the password details on the backs of the router (so that it's clearly visible if on a windowsill or similar)? Or, since it's on a slide out card, why not make the card so you can put it in blank side facing out? Ah...first word problems...

Cheers,

Andy


 
Lisa Miles 76762696
Joined 30/05/2003 - 1194 Posts

Sparkingchip:
I remember some people were fined when WiFi first came about for standing in the street and using other people’s and businesses WiFi.

However, if you're broadcasting your wifi to the public (i.e. making it accessible and password free) then how is someone supposed to know that by using it they are breaking the law?

I used to be a BT customer (until they made a complete hash job of connecting a line in to my new house when I moved but that's another, and very long, story...) and if I allowed my Wifi network (or a certain proportion of bandwith) to be accessible to the public then it allowed me to use other BT customers 'public' wifi bandwith when I was out and about. 

I also set up my friends business wifi so that customers could connect to the business wifi without a password but only use a maximum of 10% of the bandwith whereas staff (password protected access) use the larger proportion. Luckily the public wifi signal doesn't extend beyond the gates at the front of the building so cannot be connected to by anyone not actually inside. 😉 If it did extend beyond the gates then I'd password protect the service too. 

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