Are you mysteriously losing airtime? Here’s why

2013-05-19 05:00

Have you noticed suspicious “content charges” on your cellphone bills? Has your prepaid airtime vanished without you having made calls or sent SMSes? You’re not alone.

In the period between April 15 and April 30, consumer feedback site has posted, on average, two complaints a day from irate consumers wanting answers from either their cellular companies or from the suppliers of such content, known as wireless application service providers (Wasps).

A common theme of these complaints is that customers were completely unaware of having agreed to receive content on their mobile phones. They feel they are being ripped off.

In his or her complaint on April 15, Roy1962 wrote: “I loaded (airtime) on my mobile. The next thing I find that I am left with only R21 within a short space of time. I have not used my phone, but my airtime has disappeared.

“I called Cell C and was informed that Opera Interactive has been debiting my account. I have no knowledge of this company.”

On April 23, Mzeke wrote: “I am yet to receive assistance from all the nonoperational numbers and email address for Opera (Interactive). MTN, you facilitated the payment, please recover my money in a similar way you debited my account from date of alleged subscription.”

Wasps, such as Opera Interactive, are defined as firms that provide “remote services” to hand-held devices, mainly cellphones, that connect to the internet. These remote services come mainly in the form of paid-for, downloadable content, such as games and pornography, but also extend to anything from SMS competitions, daily horoscopes and “quotes of the day”, to live sports updates and weather reports.

In most cases, subscriptions to these services are charged daily, sometimes at a rate of as much as R45 a day or more. So for a prepaid or contract cellphone user, being unaware of having “subscribed” to such services could mean spiralling monthly cellphone costs.

On April 22, user Ptmanz wrote: “We have been billed around R1 200 in content charges over and above our monthly cellphone amounts. Upon phoning MTN to query these amounts, I was told MTN are not responsible for raising these as they relate to content.”

In the second half of April, 70% of complaints on regarding cellphone content charges were directed at MTN. On its website, the cellphone operator lists 43 Wasps as “partners”.

These include two of the most common Wasps consumers felt ripped off by over the 15-day period, namely Opera Interactive and Smartcall Technology Solutions (STS).

According to Kevin Jacobson, MTN’s general manager of business indirect sales, the network offers only a service of connectivity and billing for Wasps. He said: “The provision of these services is governed by a code of conduct that has been drafted and implemented by the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (Waspa).”

Waspa was established in 2004 and, according to its website, acts “as a voluntary, self-regulatory body with a remit of representing and self-regulating mobile-based value-added service providers”.

Its code of conduct was adopted in 2005 with the aim of equipping consumers “with a mechanism for addressing any concerns or complaints relating to services provided by Waspa members; and a framework for impartial, fair and consistent evaluation and response to any complaints made”.

Jacobson insists that all MTN’s Wasp partners are compelled to subscribe to the regulator’s code of conduct and that it “constantly monitors” noncompliance.

When asked what steps the network is taking to protect its customers, Jacobson said MTN “enforces a double opt-in requirement for customers to authorise any billing of their account”. He did not comment on a question regarding some consumers’ perception that cellphone networks are complicit in these unsolicited charges, since the networks themselves profit from customers’ higher bills.

STS – a Wasp that employs a range of advertising mediums, including SMS marketing and wireless application advertising – adopts a similar public relations approach, echoing Jacobson’s defence of what might be seen as a muddied twilight zone for frustrated consumers.

The company’s Lorinda Wepener says its customer opt-in system “is very effective” and the manner in which the system is governed is set out in Waspa’s code of conduct.

“Subscribers who complain should be referred to the networks as they control the opt-in,” she said.

Wepener did not respond to a question on how it is that STS obtains cellphone users’ information for their direct-marketing purposes, or to a question on whether she believes Wasps are conducting their business ethically.

Opera Interactive had not, by the time of publication, responded to a request for comment.

Somewhere in this seemingly infinite loop of having to deal with cellphone operators, Wasps and the industry regulator, consumers feel the cellphone networks – to which they primarily and knowingly subscribe to – are ultimately passing the buck and are not doing enough to protect their customers.

On April 17, after accusing his carrier of “passing the buck”, user Rustyd77 went as far as to include a transcript of a conversation he had with a call centre agent.

“Agent: We can only wait until we receive feedback from the content provider.

Rustyd77: You are not solving my problem.

You are directing me to some company who is no doubt going to simply subscribe me again.

Agent: We can only direct your request to the relevant service provider from our side. There’s nothing that we can do at this stage.

Rustyd77: Fine, I’m taking this further ...

Agent: Sure, have a great day.”

Round and round we go.

» If you’re experiencing a similar problem and have had no assistance from either your cellphone network or the Wasp that charged you for content, contact Waspa: or 011 476 7710

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