Long-time Virgin Mobile subscriber, Gordon Laing of Cape Town, travels overseas regularly, activating his roam-ing function before each trip, and deactivating it on return, by calling the company’s customer support centre.

(It’s a good idea to do this, incidentally, because unwittingly you could become connected to a foreign network and be charged international rates)

But when Laing called Virgin Mobile to activate his international roaming before his most recent trip, he was told he had to pay R10 000 before this could be done. “The agent couldn’t tell me when this had been implemented or how subscribers had been informed, but insisted this sum would not be returned to me,” he said.

But when Laing arrived in the US, his international roaming was active, despite his not paying the R10 000.

Responding to Consumer Watch’s query, Virgin Mobile SA’s “customer experience” executive Clint Payne said the R10 000 “pre-payment” did not apply to Laing as he was a regular traveller overseas and had an impeccable payment record.

As for how the pre-payment works, Virgin Mobile subscribers were either refunded the remaining balance of the R10 000 after all the call charges from the overseas networks had been received, Payne said, “or they can opt to put their account into credit and bill against that credit until it’s depleted”.

“We prefer the latter because it takes up to 90 days for all the roaming costs to reach us,” he said.

“Many leisure travellers transit through multiple countries on their way to and from their final destination and we need to allow for these call costs to reach us before we calculate the final bill.”

Payne said Virgin Mobile was working on establishing separate roaming settings for SMS, voice and data.

“That way we would be able to provide low risk, low cost SMS roaming for almost anyone, and voice roaming to more people, with a potentially lower pre-payment.

“Data roaming is the risky, very expensive one, and until rates come down significantly, will probably attract a high pre-payment.”