Cape Town - The South African National Consumer Union (Sancu) is urging consumers to be aware of their smart phone charges after receiving complaints from users with bills running over R20 000.
Sancu vice chairperson Ina Wilken told Fin24 that in 2015 the union received nearly 500 cell phone-related complaints, with some being sent to the Consumer Commission.
"It seems to me the big issue here is the bundles," she said. "Smart phones have the ability to devour huge quantities of data when performing certain of their functions, and this can easily exceed the amount of data provided for in monthly contracts. When this happens, a new tariff, which is often much higher, applies for the excess data.
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"We have had complaints from consumers who received accounts for as much as R18 000. There are customers with R20 500 bills and no the problem has not been sorted out. We are waiting for feedback and trust we will be able to give definite answers to consumers."
According to customers, Wilken said they received bundles or topped up but were never notified when the data was depleted. "They then got the shock when they received their statements or their phone was cut off."
Many problems also occur due to ignorance from providers, said Wilken. "Customers claim they notify the provider to let them know should their account reach the R1 000 mark – they are not notified and they get a surprise when their debit order indicates a withdrawal of R5 200."
Who is in the wrong?
She claimed that cell phone service providers are quick to sell smartphones to new account holders and to upgrade existing clients to smartphones, but fail to alert the consumer to the possible high costs involved when downloading data, and how to avoid them.
Wilken pointed out that Sancu issued a recommendation, as far back as October 2014, to service providers to indicate on the boxes of smart phones how to turn off automatic software updates and data connections.
She said many consumers, especially those who purchase or upgrade to smartphones for the first time, are unaware that their phones can download data without their knowledge, for which they will be responsible to pay.
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Sancu wants them make provision for a warning on all boxes of new cell phones, informing consumers that unless they deactivate the automatic downloading of data and updates on their cell phones, they may incur astronomical charges for out of bundle data on their accounts.
"So far there are no signs of this being implemented," Wilken said.
"I would urge the cell phone companies and providers to immediately see to it that this is done – the Consumer Protection Act No 68 of 2008 which was implemented on the 30th April 2011 very explicitly protects consumers of their rights and states that all information with regards to a product should be made clear to consumers in order for them to make an informed choice. This is one of our basic rights. The right to be informed."
What some cell phone network providers have to say
MTN SA marketing and sales executive Larry Annetts told Fin24 that MTN informs its customers when they reach their data limits via a range of options, including an SMS alert and soft locking.
"MTN introduced soft locking for customers who are on the Converged and Hybrid packages which when they reach their credit limit. In addition, MTN has also introduced new price which allows customers to control their spend."
Annetts said in cases where customers are aggrieved about their data charges, MTN investigates each case on its own merit to validate usage.
He added that MTN is not aware of Sancu's proposal, although he added that MTN has developed a YouTube video that educates customers about cost effective usage of their smart devices.
"We educate our customers to frequently check their data bundle balance by dialling *111# or download the My Vodacom App," said Vodacom communication specialist Andile April.
"We advise customers to buy a data bundle especially if they plan on doing big downloads and updates. Data usage will then be consumed from the data bundle at cheaper in-bundle rates so they are able to save."
April recommended in order for customers to stay in control of their data usage, they need to manually update apps, downloading software and Cloud syncing.
"Customers should rather change their settings to only do updates when they manually activate it or when their devices are connected to a WiFi network. This way you’ll always know when you’re using a lot of data."
Telkom spokesperson Pynee Chetty told Fin24: "Telkom always endeavours to educate its data subscribers on the tools available to them to manage their data."
He outlined several mechanisms that Telkom has in place to manage bill shock for data users.
1. An SMS reminder notification is sent to a subscriber at 3 different usage thresholds depending on the data bundle size.
2. Should a subscriber attempt to access a web page thereafter they will get redirected to the redirect page where they get presented with the option to either continue at out of bundle rates, or choose to purchase a once-off Internet bundle for contract subscribers and for prepaid/hybrid subscribers there is an additional option to recharge with airtime via EFT or credit card purchase or redeem an airtime voucher and then purchase the data bundle. Should a subscriber opt to do nothing then they will fail to establish an internet connection until the preferred choice to continue is selected.
3. In addition to the above solution subscribers are also able to login on to Telkom self-service portal at any given time in a month where they can view current data bundle balances as well as purchase additional ad-hoc bundles.
4. Telkom subscribers can also run a USSD balance enquiry on their data and Wi-Fi bundle balances by dialling *188# at any given time for real-time balance updates
5. Last but not least Telkom has developed iPad and Android apps that customers can download onto their devices. The apps provide subscribers with anytime, real-time access to view balances on their data and Wi-Fi bundles
6. Telkom subscribers that are currently eligible for the free Wi-Fi service on contract and prepaid can view their Wi-Fi Data bundle balances on the self-service portal, on the iPad or android app or via a USSD balance enquiry by dialling *188#. Contract subscribers that reach the 10GB Fair Usage cap for the free Wi-Fi service get throttled to 128kbps for the rest of the month, until the first of the next month where the Wi-Fi bundle is reset to full speeds.
7. In addition Telkom Mobile’s Wi-Fi ad-hoc bundles are time based bundles and once-depleted a subscriber will get redirected to a static page that alerts them that their Wi-Fi bundle is depleted. A subscriber will not have access to internet connectivity there after unless they purchase another Wi-Fi ad-hoc bundle.
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