I could fill this column every week with cellphone-related complaints alone.
That’s not surprising, really, given that we all have these portable gizmos, and there is much that can go wrong them.
And for those on contracts, there is a lot that can result in a runaway bill. Taking a smartphone across our borders without deactivating the data roaming function is the fastest way to land up with an eye-wateringly high bill.
The cases land up in my inbox when the subscriber has had no joy in sorting out their issues with the respective cellphone network or service provider – in many cases the people manning the “customer care” line having proved that they don’t care much about the customer’s plight at all.
The first case involves internal fraud.
Michael Mlauzi of Midrand’s 24-month contract with Altech-Autopage Cellular – for a handset used by his daughter – expired in March, but he chose not to “upgrade” it at the time.
When he visited the service provider’s Centurion branch in late July, he was told the system reflected that in March he’d upgraded the contract from the R112 a month package he’d signed up for, to a R762 a month contract, which came with an iPhone.
When Mlauzi checked his bank statement, he discovered that Autopage had debited an amount of R2 004 in March, and R762 every month since.
So he phoned the call centre to contest this, and was told that a query would be logged, and that someone would get back to him.
When that didn’t happen, he called back a week later.
“This time I was told they are working on it and I am not the only one – there is a long list of victims,” Mlauzi said.
“Apparently one of their employees fraudulently acquired a number of unsuspecting subscribers’ contracts when they became due for upgrading.”
Despite this, he said, he was battling to get Autopage to sort out the problem.
“No one wants to resolve this. Every time I call them I get a different story and yet my bank account has been debited every month for the past five months.
“This morning – August 13 – when I called them yet again, I was told they will get someone to work on it.”
His bank refused to cancel the debit order until Autopage issued instructions for this to be done.
“Is there any chance of having this resolved?” Mlauzi asked.
What an appalling situation!
Internal fraud happens, alas, but for a company not to rally to the aid of the victims and pull out all the stops to rectify the problem as soon as possible – and issue refunds or credits – is unacceptable.
Responding, an Autopage spokesman said the company had “identified some discrepancies that pointed to criminal activity”.
“We have since opened an official criminal case against the employee and the fraudulent activities are being managed by our fraud and risk department.”
All fraudulent upgrades would be cancelled, she said, all packages migrated to their original tariff plans at no cost to the customers (I should think not!) and credits would be processed for the months in dispute.
“Altech Autopage Cellular would like to sincerely apologise to Mr Mlauzi for any inconvenience he has experienced in having this matter resolved.”
He would received a “once-off gesture of goodwill” for this “inconvenience”, she said.
“Altech Autopage Cellular will be in constant communication with Mr Mlauzi until the matter is resolved.”
That was last Wednesday. When I checked with Mlauzi on Friday, he’d yet to get a call.
When i asked how many Autopage subscribers had fallen victim to the in-house fraudster, I was given the corporate-speak version of “none of your business”.
“The investigation is an internal matter and details pertaining to the investigation are confidential.”
Terry Lyons of Durban had a Vodacom contract in his company name for use by one of his employees.
In April, when the contract expired, he gave Vodacom’s Musgrave Centre outlet written permission to “upgrade” the contract.
But while the original contract was a limited Top Up package, the new contract which the employee acquired was not limited, with the result that Lyons was billed about R20 000 in respect that contract.
When he raised this with the branch, he was told that he’d given his verbal consent to migrate the package to the more expensive one, which he denied.
“Now they’re saying my letter of permission was open-ended and they were thus within their rights to migrate the contract.”
He was told by Vodacom’s head office in an e-mail: “You did not specify they should not change the package, your letter states that you give consent to do an upgrade.
“So the upgrade was done according to the equipment he chose… so he is responsible.
“We will not offer any refunds.”
But the story changed when Consumer Watch took up the case with the network’s media office.
“We conducted an investigation and our shop erroneously changed the Top Up package into a contract, for which we apologise,” said spokesman Nomsa Thusi.
“We’re still investigating the circumstances behind that mistake to ensure that we put measures in place to prevent a recurrence.
“We will honour Mr Lyon’s request for a refund, and we’ll liaise directly with him on arranging the necessary credit to his account.”
Lyons’s account will be credited with R16 000 for calls and data usage, a sum that takes into account the fact that the employee was given a handset of a higher value than the one he would have been given on the Top Up package.
So – if you’re giving permission for a spouse, child or employee to upgrade a cellphone contract for their use, in your name, be very specific about which contract or package you’re willing to fund.
I continue to get a lot of complaints from subscribers who’ve been billed for “premium-rated services” that they vehemently deny agreeing to.
Despite the regulatory body – the Wireless Application Service Providers Association – putting in place a code of conduct that increasingly forces the so-called Wasps to ensure that the consumer knows exactly what they are getting in to, many of them continue to openly flout the code.
The code requires mobile content providers to have a “double opt-in” process – in other words, subscribers should be forced to agree to subscribe to the service twice – and to send those who’ve agreed to subscriptions a series of welcome and reminder SMSes.
Last month, Cell C sent its Control Chat subscribers the following SMS: “From 8 Aug please recharge with pre-paid airtime to pay for content services.
“These costs will no longer be paid from your Control Chat Top-Up airtime.”
Asked to explain the move, a Cell C spokesman told Consumer Watch: “We have received a large number of complaints from customers that their in-bundle value is depleted by premium-rated services and subscriptions before they are able to make calls and use Cell C services.
“As a result, Wasp premium-rated subscriptions will no longer be charged from the in-bundle value.”
If those Cell C subscribers are complaining, one assumes they don’t want the services, so something is still wrong with the processes by which people become subscribed to these non-essential add-ons, if you ask me.
In most cases, the complainants say they don’t even receive the services they’re being billed for.
In December Vodacom introduced its own double opt-in process, taking control of this protection on behalf of its subscribers.
So if you’re a Vodacom subscriber, before you can be billed for a service providing you with games, ringtones, weather updates, pornographic images or whatever, you will receive an SMS from the network, confirming that you have been subscribed to the service, and what it’s going to cost you, and only if you agree will that subscription be confirmed.
So I asked Cell C whether it was considering a similar protection, given that so many of its subscribers appear to be being charged for content against their will.
This was the response: “We are in the process of evaluating a technical solution for a double opt-in service for implementation late this year or early 2013.
“This solution is aimed at further protecting our customers from wrongfully being billed for subscription services.”
Good to know.
BUYING BIG IS NOT AWAYS CHEAPER
Most consumers assume that it pays to buy in bulk; that the bigger pack of margarine, breakfast cereal or tea works out cheaper than the smaller one.
And when the manufacturer goes as far as to enforce this perception with a bold on-pack claim of “Bigger Pack, Better Value”, as in the case of the current box of 200 Joko teabags, few consumers would doubt this is the case.
But while shopping at Pick n Pay on Nicol in Byranston, Stuart Mann discovered the 100-bag pack of Joko – not marked as being on promotion – was in fact better value, working out at 19c per teabag versus 25c per teabag with the “better value” 200-bag pack.
“In fact, buying two of the 100 teabag boxes would have been R10 cheaper than buying one 200-bag box.
“I don’t have a problem with this, as I always check the unit prices on the shelf, and often the smaller packs are cheaper, but I do have a problem with the larger 200 teabag box having branding stating ‘Bigger Pack, Better Value’.
“To my mind this is a lie and less discerning consumers will not realise they are being cheated.”
Responding, Unilever’s communications director Elizabeth Pretorius said retailers were not compelled to stick to Unilever’s recommended selling prices.
“The “Bigger Pack, Better Value” claims on the Joko 200s black tea bags, Glen 200s black tea bags and Joko 500g black loose tea are in fact correct and valid within the context of recommended retail selling prices,” she said.
Pretorius added there was no intention to mislead the consumer.
“Although it would be in Unilever’s interests to see consumers rewarded for buying bigger pack sizes, we cannot dictate the margin retailers want to take on different pack sizes.”
Consumers should always check the unit prices of items, Pretorius said.
“As pointed out by Stuart Mann, the price per bag is made clearly visible by the retailer at the shelf for shoppers to make their own decision to purchase the bigger pack or not.”
So ignore bold claims on packs and seek the real story, found in the unit price on the shelf label. Only Pick n Pay and Checkers/Shoprite stores display unit prices on shelf labels – you won’t find unit prices in Spar or Woolworths stores.