Category Archives: Ramblings

Thoughts on interesting, amusing or annoying topics

The Energy Deal Scam

I’ve been getting calls on my business line saying that my ‘energy deal’ has expired and that I need to set up a new one.

I know full well that I have recently taken out a new energy deal with Octopus Energy which I am very pleased with, so when someone phones me and immediately starts lying, the ‘Scam Alert’ sirens start up.

Then an article in ‘Private Eye’ caught my own eye.  It seems that these firms (called ‘Third Party Intermediaries’ or TPIs) say they will act as your agent to get a good deal.  To authorise them to negotiate on your behalf, you sign a Letter of Authority (LOA) which lets them set up a deal on your behalf but not to your benefit.  This is because selling to business is not regulated like selling to householders.  They set up a rigged ‘tendering process’ and take unacknowledged fees from both parties.

The next time I get a call about my energy account, I won’t be so polite.

The TripAdvisor Money Machine

Planning a short sight-seeing trip to a foreign city isn’t easy – you want to see the best sights in a short time and at an affordable price.  You don’t know your way around the city – there are so many hotels on offer, but what are they like? Are they conveniently situated? what facilities do they offer?  As soon as you start Googling, you are bombarded with websites offering you all sorts of temptations. Rather than making it easier, they make it worse.

We visited Venice for a special occasion and chose our hotel and flight through TripAdvisor.  The first misleading part is that they say they don’t charge a cancellation fee.  Maybe not, but the hotel you have booked probably does! To be fair, we managed to get a decent hotel, but it was on the mainland, rather than the island of Venice itself.

Then, of course, you want to visit some attractions.  Immediately you are offered ‘skip the line’ tours.  Neglecting the Americanism, which should be a warning, you book a tour ‘to avoid the queues which can be up to two hours long’.

When you get there, the queues are quite short and you discover that the prices on the door are really cheap, compared with what you have paid for a ‘guided tour’.

As one simple example of the tour issue, the only way to get around is by ‘vaporetto’ literally ‘steam-boat’.  They don’t tell you, but you can get a 72-hour (3-day) travel pass at any tobacconist shop (smoking does not yet appear to be condemned to the same extent as in Britain) offering unlimited travel by bus and boat, for £40 (in essence, the sterling pound has now dropped to parity with the euro).  (For comparison, a one-day travel card  from Epsom to London – a distance of about 13 miles – costs £21.70).

If you book a half-day ‘tour’ to the main Islands of Venice, this costs at least £18 per person, and doesn’t include getting to the boat, which would cost you a lot more.  Plus, if you really want to see the islands, you need a whole day.

Whilst you can walk everywhere in Venice, it’s not easy as the whole city is criss-crossed with canals – some wide, many narrow.  As a result, few of the streets are straight – you turn left and right along tow-paths, over bridges and through passages.  Moreover, the narrow streets mean that sat-nav in mobile phones is not always reliable, telling you to turn this way and that.  More than once, it told us that we had arrived at a destination when we could not see it anywhere.  Eventually, we realised that quite often we were at the back of the property, but with no obvious way to get to the entrance! This is except when a place had decided to call itself by a misleading name, so we were at the sat-nav destination, but miles from where we actually wanted to visit.   A good street map is advisable.

Scams

We know that scammers are getting nastier, and I’ve had three nasty scams this week.

The first was a short email that said something like ‘We know your password is xzxzzxz and that you have been accessing a porn site. Whilst we admire your taste, we have used your webcam to record what you were doing and we will share it with your friends and family unless you pay us $1200.  We are sure you will agree that this is a fair price to protect your reputation.’

The password (not the above!) was in fact genuine and one I had used with my BT mail when it was hosted by Yahoo.  However, I had long since changed it.  And since I have not accessed porn nor do I have a webcam, I knew the email was a scam, but it was still a shock to receive it.  Of course, I just deleted it.

The second scam was a recorded message purporting to be sent by BT from an 0800 number, claiming that my line had been used for hacking and they were going to disable it unless I replied to the message.  After ignoring it the first time, it rang back twice more.  Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of the internet would realise that this was just a new version of the call ‘from the Microsoft Service Department’, but it would have been scary for vulnerable people, who might well have ‘pressed 1’ as instructed.

The third scam was an email purporting to come from ‘WeTransfer’ from someone that I do business with, saying that he was using the system to send me a business proposal.  Although this was entirely possible, I had fairly recently spoken to him and there was no inkling in that conversation that I might get such an invitation.  So without opening the message, I responded back to enquire what it was about, and I got a reply using some Americanisms that (as rather a stickler for correct language) I could not imagine he would use.  Needless to say, I deleted it.  And since I’ve heard nothing more, I was right to do so. Even so, it seems that either WeTransfer or some other system has been hacked.

Of course, I’m often getting the obvious scams – one from a ‘very nice guy’ who kept phoning with ‘helpful investment advice’.  It was only when I said to him ‘Your office is very noisy – it sounds as though you’re calling from a Boiler Room‘ that the calls stopped!

Another variation on the telephone call scam received today.  “This is your credit card security department.  You bought an item for £600 from a foreign company.  If this wasn’t you, press 1”

Well, I know from experience that a real credit card company firstly tells you who they are and asks to speak to the cardholder by name, along with various other details.  I don’t know what happens if you do press 1.  Do you end up paying for a premium rate phone call?

The last post?

There is a very handy pillar box (letter box) outside my local parade of shops, which I often use for sending out birthday cards and business letters.  The last post went at 5.30 pm on weekdays, a very convenient time.  So yesterday I went at 4 pm to post a birthday card and I noted that the last post was shown as being 9.00 am on weekdays! In other words, they now only collect first thing in the morning!

To get a later collection, I either have to go to Epsom station, a walk of about a mile, where the last collection is just after 5.00 pm, or to the delivery office, which is well over a mile away, for a collection at 7.30 pm.  Neither of these has available car stopping places.  Yes, you’d think that there’d be parking at the railway station, but it’s all taken up by taxis unless you are very lucky.

I’ve thought for some time that the Post Office has pretty much given up on collecting and delivering mail.  My post usually arrives sometime after lunch, although this is very unpredictable.  My solicitor sent me an important document that I needed to read before I met him, but it did not arrive.  He’d missed the last post before the bank holiday, with the result that the document took six days to travel about a mile.  (I suspect that it probably travelled more like 100 miles because now they’re sent to a centralised sorting office and come all the way back from there.)

They’re putting nails into their own coffin with this approach.  OK, email and electronic media have taken over much business communication, but by no means all, as evidenced by my wastepaper basket.  But the Post Office has simply failed to respond to the huge rise in internet shopping. So many people are running small businesses that need things to be sent out, but have you tried using the Post Office to do this? Don’t bother – use a courier firm which will be quicker and likely cheaper.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I did some training with the GPO (the government-run General Post Office) (which at that time had a monopoly on communication networks).  I was so shocked at the laziness of staff and so utterly bored by the sitting around that when I was offered a job as a graduate, I couldn’t bear to take it up.

One of my placements was in a trunk exchange which had vast racks of wiring frames about 50 yards long.  The wiring runs needed to be continually updated and the technicians were expected to do a certain number of jobs each day.  So my mentor would go through the filing cabinet of work, find the easiest job and do it. Then he disappeared to the toilet for a long time. I was sent to loiter at the distribution frame near the door and when I saw the Executive Engineer come in, I had to press a hidden button to alert the poker school to start looking like they were busy!

BT Bills

I’ve just received by BT bill and as expected by changing from quarterly payment plan to monthly total billing, I’ve gone from being in debit to being £200 in credit, plus a lower monthly payment!

My broadband speeds are 37.5 Mbps downsteam and 10 Mbps upstream. The guarantee a minimum downstream speed of 37 Mbps but say that my estimated download speed is 42 to 61 Mbps.  In fact, the street cabinet is getting on for a mile away, so I think their estimated speeds are rather optimistic anyway.  In the past I’d had a lot of trouble with reliability, but it was only when my phone rang non-stop that they looked into it and found a stray wire in a street cabinet causing an intermittent short-circuit.  Mind you, before they would look into it, they warned me of a hefty charge if the problem was in my house wiring!

Today I got an advertising leaflet from Sky that was enticingly cheap until I saw the pathetic speeds they were offering.  There is Virgin Media fibre in my street, so I checked that out as well.  I can get 100 Mbps for £49/month (after the first year discount) plus some TV channels.  Maybe I should look into this further.

A new DECT phone

I researched getting a Yealink cordless VoIP phone and transferring my existing landline number to a new ‘Sipgate’ account. The cordless VoIP phone looks to the user like an ordinary cordless ‘DECT’ phone, so would be acceptable to my partner.

However, I already have two Sipgate accounts which my partner and I use for our businesses, but in reality she uses her mobile phone for business and her Sipgate line is almost unused.  This is because it has a wired-in handset that is not in a convenient place.  So I decided that it would be better to get a cordless handset for that phone, so it is more convenient to use.  This would be cheaper, even for a high-quality handset, and would require little setting up.  If she likes the VoIP line, then I can transfer the landline number in due course.  The DECT handset can then be used either on the new VoIP line (with an adapter) or can replace one of our other ageing DECT handsets.

I did a fair bit of research and it seems that the main choice is between Panasonic, BT and Gigaset.  The BT offerings look fairly nice, but with a colour screen they are quite expensive. Plus, the ‘base’ station is incorporated into one of the phone charging bases, so has to be close to the main telephone port. As I’ve said, this is not in a convenient place.  Panasonic do DECT phones with a colour screen, but as far as I can tell, not with a separate base station.

Gigaset C570 cordless phone
Gigaset C570 cordless phone

So then I looked at Gigaset phones.  I’m not familiar with this brand, but they claim their product is made in Germany.  Their C570 model has a 2.2 inch colour screen and separate answering machine/ base station, and extra handsets (which are GAP compatible) at a competitive price, so that’s what I went for after checking out some reviews.  The price including two handsets was £99.00. They have been simple to instal, and (something my partner is very keen on) you can turn them to energy-saving mode which allows the handset radio to sleep when no calls are being made, checking in once every two seconds to see if there is an incoming call.

So far, we have been delighted with them.  The pay-back time will be more than a year compared with the BT ‘anytime call’ subscription (not counting the additional convenience of answering business calls) so we will see how it goes.

UPDATE: I decided to download the pdf manuals for the C570 so I can discard the paper ones.  I noted that they were in the ‘legacy’ section of the Gigaset website, so obviously that model has been discontinued, which would explain the good price.  Looking at their current offerings, the nearest similar one is the S850A GO.  This can do both landline and VoIP, but costs £100 for one handset. It has quite a lot of useful additional features.  Oddly, the Gigaset website doesn’t point you to additional handsets, which is a strange omission. The one on their website that looks most similar costs £50.

 

Time to ditch the landline?

My last post mentioned that BT are planning to switch off the landline telephone network in five years (in 2025).  They haven’t yet told us how this might affect users, and indeed, I can’t find anything about this subject on the BT website.  However, Ofcom issued a document in February 2019 which sets out some of their requirements.  This says that ‘major landline providers’ (i.e. BT in most of the UK) ‘will offer VoIP products delivered over broadband … before PSTN is retired completely.’

Ofcom say that whilst 81 % of households have a landline service, ‘most’ consumers now have a mobile and use it as their main method for making and receiving calls at home.  4 % of adults have a landline but no mobile but only 3 % have a landline and no broadband.  There is possibly more concern about non-voice landlines, such as those used for alarms and payment systems, that rely on attributes of the PSTN that may not be replicated by VoIP.

BT have to an extent already presaged the switchover by no longer charging separately for ‘line rental’ on their broadband deals.  However, they are not yet offering any VoIP ‘landline’ option. Their traditional landline offering is quite expensive – ‘unlimited’ anytime calls cost £9.99 a month (less if you have a broadband deal) but if you go over the one hour (even by one second) on any call, they whack it up to the standard rate of 15 p per minute.

They did have a system called ‘SmartTalk’ that let you talk over your broadband wi-fi from any mobile phone when at home or within range of another wi-fi system, but this was very quietly dropped in January 2019.

Their overt reasoning was that it was no longer needed because mobile plans had generous airtime and less onerous roaming charges. A more likely reason is that they started to offer ‘wifi calling’ on BT mobile phone contracts, so they’re making this an advantage of their system.

Along with their offering of extra data allowances on BT Mobile if you have broadband with them, they are pushing BT Mobile very hard.

In the early days of mobile, I got one from BT, but I switched to O2 when they stopped offering up-to-date handsets. Recently, I made the foolish mistake of getting a new BT Mobile phone, but it couldn’t get a signal inside my house.  When I complained, their advice was that I should go outside to make a call! Needless to say, I had to send the phone back at my own cost, including insurance!

My present Samsung phone works fine on O2 indoors, although admittedly with a weak signal, and its calling plans when abroad (I travel for business and pleasure) are cheaper than BT.

Sadly, I think it is time for me to get another SIP adaptor for my broadband and to port my landline number across to it.  Sipgate charge 1.18 p per minute with no contract, or you can get various deals which are reasonably priced.

Previously, I’d thought that BT were competing by offering advanced and reliable technology, albeit at a price. In the early days they offered ‘Broadband Talk’ and they even provided me with a broadband phone.  But that has also gone without explanation.

Now I’m finding them to be putting profit first and I’m starting to doubt them.  Shame, as I’ve been a very loyal customer, ever since as a student, I trained in various telephone exchanges in Manchester.

 

End of the old telephone system

Strange that after yesterday’s gripe about BT, I read that the old ‘copper pairs to the exchange’ telephone system (called PSTN) is to cease in 2025.  You may not be able to get a new ‘telephone line’ after the end of this year!

I’ve read very little about how this will affect people who only have an old ‘sit up and beg’ hard-wired phone.

People currently using the BT network for broadband and voice actually have two services provided over the one pair of wires coming into their premises.  One is the original PSTN that connects to their local exchange, and the other is the high-frequency broadband signal that in many cases is fed into your own pair of wires in a street cabinet close(ish) to your premises.  It probably isn’t fed in at the exchange, as this may be too far away for a high-frequency signal to reach your premises.

So it would be simple to turn the power off at the exchange, which would mean the PSTN will stop working, but the broadband will continue.  However, the traditional ‘sit up and beg’ phone relies on the power supplied from the exchange, and these would no longer work.

I have used a VoIP (Voice over IP) system for over a decade for my, and my partner’s, business.  There is a cheap and simple Linksys VoIP adapter that plugs into the broadband router and has two ordinary phone outlets giving me two phone numbers.  I subscribe to a VoIP provider (Sipgate) which costs very little (certainly compared with BT’s charges) and the system works very well.

You can, of course, buy a phone that has the VoIP adapter built in. In this case, you simply plug the phone into a broadband socket, and it works in every respect like a dial-up phone. No doubt this is what BT will provide to people in future, if they just want a phone.

Of course, you still need to have a phone number that people can dial.  This is set up by your VoIP provider, Sipgate in my case, but no doubt BT will provide a number in future.  Indeed, I did have an internet phone provided by BT with one of their original ‘Home Hubs’, but clearly they didn’t want me to use it, as charges were higher than for the landline, so guess what? I eventually put it into the recycling!

The monthly instalment payment rip-off

I’ve used BT as my broadband internet provider for at least 20 years, and I’ve had a BT landline for much longer than that.  I used to pay off my bill in full as soon as it arrived, which was quarterly in the days before on-line billing, and later to monthly billing. My ‘deal’ costs about £60 per month.  Quite expensive, really, especially when compared with my mobile phone bill, but the speed and reliability have improved hugely over time, and changing could cause problems that would offset the savings I might make.

Well, I try out various new things for BT, and in May 2018 they asked if I would try Quarterly Billing with a monthly payment plan and I naïvely agreed. They set up the bill to be issued on the first day of each quarter and for the direct debit to be taken on the first day of each month.  They told me the payment would be £49.50 a month (which didn’t seem right to cover a bill of about £60 a month, but I left it to see what happened), starting from 1st July 2018.

So, with the first bill issued on 2 Jun, I was £177.61 in debit because they charged for 3 months of usage, and no payments had been taken.

By the next bill,  1st September, they told me I was £181 in debt.  How come? I checked and they were taking £89 per month – not the £49.50 they’d originally said – but there were only two direct debits – 2nd July and 1st August.  Of course, the 1st September payment hadn’t been taken because that was a Saturday, but they were charging me for 3 months in advance.  So by the next bill, 1st December, my account was £103.93 in debit.  There were 3 payments of £89, but the payment of 1st December had not been recorded – again a Saturday – so they increased my payments to £99.50 a month (remember that my usage was about £60 a month). By the next bill (March), I was £99.42 in CREDIT, but they kept the payments at £99.50 a month!

The catch is that with quarterly billing, they charge you three months IN ADVANCE and at the same time, they expect you to have built up that 3 months credit BEFORE they calculate your account.  If you don’t have enough to clear the account at that point, they whack up the monthly payments.

But that’s not all: even though my account was already almost £100 in credit, they only reduced the monthly payments to £78 a month even though I’m spending about £60 a month!

So they have built up a credit of over £300 in my account, so that they can pay off a bill of £185 which will itself be charging me for three months in advance!

It should be noted that many other companies are doing the same. Steer clear! Pay your bill in full every month. It will cost you less.

Time Zones

Anyone following this blog will know that the time displayed on a clock depends on its time zone.  Time zones are intended to allow everyone in a region to have a common time reference.  The convenience of this overrides the slight inconvenience arising from midday (and thus sunrise and set) getting slightly later as you move to the west.  And of course, there is also a north-south variation in sunrise and set.  The length of the day gets shorter as you move north in the winter, but longer as you move north in the summer, due to the tilt of the earth.  This means that in the winter in Scotland, it doesn’t get light until about 9 am.

The EU imposed a common set of time zones accompanied by ‘Daylight Saving Time’ in 1996.  However, the moving of clocks forward and back in Spring and Autumn is unpopular and the EU is now proposing that Summer Time should apply all year round.  The change would mean lighter evenings but darker mornings. Apparently, this was most popular with Germans and Austrians, but Britons and Italians didn’t care.

Permanent summer time was tried in the UK, with one argument being that it would reduce road accidents and energy consumption, but there wasn’t much evidence for this especially as some parts of  Scotland and northern England wouldn’t get daylight until 10 am in the winter.

Speaking personally, I quite liked the permanent summer time because of the lighter evenings.  Being in the south of England, the dark mornings are less of a problem than the dark evenings, although I have to say that in the winter months, there just isn’t enough daylight and messing with the clocks won’t change that.

And speaking as someone who looks after a church clock, I would rather not have to turn the clock hands on an hour in spring and stop it for an hour in the autumn. (It is possible to advance a chiming clock, but not to wind it backwards, as this would damage the mechanism.) The clock is mechanism is shown at the top of this blog.  It is a typical English flat-bed design, made by JW Bennett of Ludgate Hill in 1871, so it is almost 150 years old.  Nevertheless it is very sturdily built and keeps accurate time with little adjustment.  The frame is of heavy cast iron about four feet wide and 2 feet deep.   I still wind it by hand, having resisted the blandishments of those who would ruin it by fitting electric winding motors.  The weights are extremely heavy (I calculate that the quarter chiming weight is almost one ton and must be wound about 40 feet every week) but two fit people can wind it in fifteen minutes.  Adjusting the clock is a bit of a fag as the time shown on the mechanism does not exactly correspond with what is shown by the external hands, so unless I’m very careful, I have to climb the tower several times to get it right! It has a long, heavy pendulum at the other side from the photo. This goes through the floor into the bell-ringing chamber underneath.