By Lyse Comins
SA consumers are still paying a high price for mobile data and bill shock is exacerbating the problem to the extent that in some cases consumers are being handed over to debt collectors for accounts of thousands of rands they had no intention of ringing up.
As a consumer columnist for national media houses I receive regular complaints from consumers about bill shock and presently have cases on my desk ranging from surprise bills for cellphone and mobile data contracts ranging from R2000 to R20 000 and even as high as R80 000, granted, the latter is for three different phones for the same customer.
Often, the data has been used on tablets and in at least one case, a consumer did not even have the device, which was sold to him via telesales direct marketing but immediately returned for a refund because it was too bulky. To his surprise, four months later, he suddenly received a bill for data used on the device, which he claimed had not so much as opened before returning it for the refund.
Usually, bill shock complaints follow one of two story lines -either consumers claims that they asked for their cellphone account to be capped at a certain level, for example one or two gigabytes, so that by agreement their internet access should be cut when the limit is reached. But then they receive a huge bill, often running into thousands of rands, and they have to prove to the service provider that they requested the cap. What has happened is that huge out of bundle data rates of anything up to a whopping R2 per megabyte have kicked in resulting in the astronomical bill. This works out to a rate of R2000 per gigabyte.
The second storyline is when there may or may not be a cap and a consumer claims to have no knowledge of excessive data consumption on the account that when investigated can be traced to data content services.
Wireless Application Service Providers (Wasps) offer consumers these data content services, ranging from daily messages and photographs, including adult content, to ringtone downloads.
Consumers claim that they have no knowledge of ever signing up for theses services online but in some cases the Wasps have produced evidence showing that consumers requested the service.
My guess, because this has almost happened to me before and I panicked, is that when surfing the internet adverts popped up offering the service, and in their rush to close the annoying window they may have accidentally clicked “subscribe”. These services charge daily rates of anything upwards from R5 a day and they can quickly add up, especially when a device is signed up for several services.
Wasps say they have now resolved this problem by requiring consumers to go through a “double opt-in” process to ensure they have twice agreed to the service and its terms and conditions. But some consumers have still denied signing up for the services.
The big questions is: how can consumers protect themselves from the pitfalls of bill shock while our data rates remain sky high?
Consider switching to prepaid and buy data bundles, which are usually sold much cheaper than out-of- bundle rates but these may not always favourably match data prices offered on contract.
But if you can’t bear the thought of switching to prepaid make sure you have asked your service provider to “cap” your account and place a limit on your line. If you do this telephonically be sure to record the date and time of the call, get the name of the consultant and ask for a reference number. File this information away in a safe place – not too safe that you forget where it is though. By doing so you are covering your back and should help to prevent bill shock. If you do suddenly receive a high account for some unknown reason you will have proof that you requested a ceiling to be placed on your data use.
When you upgrade your contract be sure to request the cap in writing, making a note on the contract documents if there is no official space on the form to request a cap. I have seen this simple action save at least one consumer thousands of rands in a dispute over data charges and without it she may have battled to limit her liability. Read contracts and amend clauses – remember to initial for the change and ask the consultant to do the same -that attempt to make you responsible for data charges beyond the limit specified.
Some service providers also have Mobile Apps that can be downloaded onto the device to track data usage but be warned that consumers have also complained that they have missed these notifications because the SMS is sent, for example, not to their primary cellphone number but to the SIM inside a tablet and it goes unread. Make sure you request the notification to go to your primary mobile phone number.
Space and time limits me from elaborating here on the trials and triumphs of consumers who have fought the bill shock war with service providers. But hopefully I’ve given you just enough insight on the problem to help you to avoid the pitfalls and financial pain of the high costs of unexpected mobile data charges. Share your consumer trials and triumphs with me on firstname.lastname@example.org