Michael Mlauzi was in for a shock when he discovered that the contract for his daughters handset had been upgraded in March after the old contract had expired  to one more expensive that came with an iPhone.

Johannesburg - 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 with 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 an eye-watering 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 that 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 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 and 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, she said.

“Altech Autopage Cellular would like to sincerely apologise to Mr Mlauzi for any inconvenience he has experienced in having this matter resolved.”

He would receive 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.


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 nearly R20 000 for 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.”

“You did not specify that they should not change the package, your letter states that you give consent to do an upgrade,” he was told by Vodacom’s head office in an e-mail.

“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 re-occurrence.

“We will honour Mr Lyons’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 which 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 specific about which contract or package you’re willing to fund. - Pretoria News