064 An old person talking on his cellphone. 050609. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Virgin Mobile stands accused of being a Christmas Scrooge to many of its subscribers by debiting their bank accounts two days before Christmas instead of at the usual end of the month.

When you take out a contract with a company that includes a debit order instruction, you’re asked to stipulate on which day of the month you wish that debit order to be activated. Most choose a date sometime between the 25th and the last day of the month, to coincide with pay day.

But come December every year, some companies get a bit ahead of themselves. They assume that all their clients will be paid early, and decide to do an early money grab from their accounts.

The companies usually cover themselves by alerting their clients to this in advance.

Virgin Mobile did the early December debit order thing last month, and Alan Chetty of Phoenix, Durban, is among its many subscribers who didn’t appreciate it.

The first he knew of it, he says, was an SMS he received on December 28 from Virgin Mobile, informing him that his line had been locked and urging him to contact the company.

When he did, he was told that payment was required by December 23, and that he’d been sent an SMS to this effect on the 18th.

“I did not receive any notification,” Chetty insists.

“According to my contract, my debit order goes off on the 30th of every month, as I only receive my salary on the 29th or 30th of every month.

“So my service was disconnected although the account was not in arrears, and it was was only reconnected on January 3, yet the company refuses to pass a credit for the days I was unable to use my contract, or reimburse me my bank charges.”

Chetty points out that none of his other creditors sought to extract their money from his account earlier than usual in December.

“I was left without a cellphone service, which I’m paying for, over Christmas and New Year, and when I complained to my local branch of Virgin Mobile, I was treated as if I was over-reacting,” Chetty said.

“I feel completely violated.”

Consumer Alert asked Virgin Mobile why it chose to override the debit order instructions on its post-paid subscribers’ contracts, how many subscribers were affected, how and when they were notified, and whether the company intended to compensate Chetty in any way.

Responding, the company said it took “a business decision” to initiate debit orders earlier in December “due to the fact that most companies pay their employees earlier in December”.

All customers with an outstanding balance on December 23, with debit order instructions on or after the 25th, were affected, I was told – but predictably no number was revealed. I’d say it would have affected pretty much their entire contract subscriber base.

The company said this decision was communicated to customers via their monthly bill and a “courtesy” SMS sent from December 12, which read: “Due to the festive season holiday, we will be debiting your account on December 23. Please call 129 should the above date not suit you.”

As for compensating Chetty, the company doesn’t believe “that compensation is required”.

“We communicated the change on the invoice as per our agreed channel of communication set out in our terms and conditions of the customer’s contract.

“The customer had ample time to contact us and arrange for later payment.”

Incidentally, many other Virgin Mobile subscribers have complained bitterly about the early debit on consumer complaints website HelloPeter, a lot of them claiming, like Chetty, not to have received that SMS.

I think this practice is highly disrespectful to consumers, especially in the case of those whose track records reveal that they have never defaulted with their December payments.

Even if they are notified by the company in advance, it puts the onus on them – at a time when many are on holiday – to take the time and trouble to ensure that the early debit order is not actioned, if they aren’t among those receiving their salaries earlier than usual in December.

Just don’t do it.