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Virgin 999 Phone Story

Mail on Sunday Newspaper - November 2007

Mail on Sunday- November 2007

We were contacted by a whistle blower concerned that Virgin phone users were  being put at risk because details of their addresses were allegedly not passed on to the emergency services.

The anonymous source was paid an excellent fee.



Read the full story below:

At least 1.5million cable phone customers have been put at risk because accurate details of their addresses were not passed to the emergency services.

A secret internal report reveals that Virgin Media customers were missed off, or inaccurately listed on, the database used by police, fire and ambulance services responding to 999 calls.

The document admits that in some cases, where a caller was unable to speak, emergency operators would have been unable to find any record of where the call was coming from which could have had 'fatal consequences'.

Other customers' details were so inaccurate that crucial time would be lost as the 999 operator was forced to double-check with Virgin staff where a call originated.

The report, obtained by The Mail on Sunday, says there is a 'significant risk that a customer who may not be able to communicate their address is not located by the emergency services'.

Last night, Ofcom, which has the power to impose massive fines on telecom firms, said it would launch an urgent investigation into the revelations because it was a matter of 'life and limb' for Virgin customers.

Phone companies are obliged by law to update customer details on a database which flashes up on to 999 operators' computer screens the address and name of the subscriber whose phone is being used.

But an internal review by senior executives at Virgin Media – Britain's second biggest phone company – revealed major errors in huge numbers of records. Despite the danger, the audit, which was completed at the beginning of this year, has been kept secret from customers.

One of the firm's primary concerns appears to have been the damage the revelation would do to its image.

The internal audit document warned of the 'significant risk to the business of the reputational damage that would occur as a consequence of a customer making a 999 call and not being located due to the inaccuracy of our data on the emergency services' database'.

The review came in the weeks before the cable company, then known as ntl:Telewest, was re-launched under the Virgin brand after Richard Branson brought a major stake in the firm.

The document added: 'In the light of the imminent rebrand...the reputational risk could be amplified as we take on one of the world's most respected brand names.'

Although the scale of the problem identified was huge, senior managers were told 'the list of findings (was) not an exhaustive list'. The company has around four million customers and the report reveals that at least 1,471,689 had the wrong information passed to the 999 operator. Of these, 310,000 customers details were completely missing.

'Should any of these customers make 999 calls the emergency services would be required to call our 24-hour back-up centre to obtain any location information, delaying the process of sending assistance,' says the internal report. 'This could have fatal consequences for the caller.' The report also warns of the possible dangers of a delayed response to calls by a further 200,000 customers whose postcodes were mismatched on the 999 system and to nearly 600,000 other customers, the numbers and names of whose buildings were inaccurately recorded.

Records of another 900,000 former customers, who had quit Virgin, remained on the 999 operators' system potentially causing further confusion. According to Virgin this also meant the firm was 'contravening the Data Protection Act'.

The firm's secret report, which The Mail on Sunday has now forwarded to Ofcom, revealed that the problems would take at least until next year to resolve and even the firm's own billing information was 'not adequate enough to ensure emergency services could locate every customer should they make a 999 call'. The Virgin report adds: 'We believe that there is a significant risk to the business of reputational damage... our regulatory requirement to protect our customer's welfare is not being met.'

Last night, a spokeswoman for Ofcom said it would launch an urgent investigation 'because this would appear to involve a threat to the life and limb of Virgin customers'.

She said: 'Virgin have not made Ofcom aware of this as a problem. This a very serious matter.

'If evidence shows Virgin were in breach of its obligations regarding the 999 operator then it is of great concern that we were not alerted.' British Telecom runs the 999 system for the emergency services. Last night it said that Virgin Media had alerted them to its difficulties and that it had been working with them to try to put things right.

Virgin Media said in a statement that before the re-branding of the company, itself a merger of two firms, ntl and Telewest, an audit of both the original companies' databases was ordered.

The statement said: 'With some four million telephone customers, the databases required to support 999 calls are inevitably extremely large. The audit revealed that, over time, problems with the accuracy of the data had built up in the two companies' systems. 'A programme was swiftly put in place to systematically address these issues.' The statement said that this included setting up a single centre to 'provide 999 operators with clarification and assurance of data relating to any emergency call'.

It added: 'Virgin Media takes the safety of its customers very seriously. The improvement programme continues to receive the highest priority. We're confident that all remaining issues will be resolved during 2008. 'Our back-up support centre ensures the emergency services can get to any of our customers that need help.'

Last night a Virgin spokesman insisted the company had not been 'irresponsible' in not alerting either their customers or Ofcom to the issue.