Protection needed from cellphone bill shock

2014-08-12 00:00

CELLPHONE networks are not taking the plight of consumers seriously when it comes to “bill shock” and “roaming shock”, and a leading SA IT expert believes it’s high time the regulator takes strong action to protect consumers.

Durban nurse Bernadette Madlala, the latest casualty of “bill shock” that I dealt with recently, received a more than R25 000 account after videos were streamed on her smartphone via YouTube.

Madlala is adamant that she did not use the phone to download videos.

“Why would I want to use my phone to watch movies when I am paying R700 a month for DStv? The last time my phone downloaded a movie, I was busy in training and my phone was with me in my bag. I am an old woman. I don’t even know how to download a movie,” Madlala said.

Madlala said her service provider, Nashua Mobile, had initially locked her phone on May 17 due to “high usage” amounting to R13 784,36. She then received her next bill shock of R9 729 on July 18 despite an account limit of R810 that was put in place on June 26.

Madlala said she had at no time received a warning that her usage was escalating and she would never have allowed the high data usage.

But despite Madlala’s repeated complaints to Nashua Mobile that she had not used the data, the company remained adamant that she was responsible for the full amount owing on the account.

Nashua Mobile spokesperson Elmarie Koster said airtime was billed in arrears and Madlala’s bill was R13 784,36 in June, which included usage until May 17, while her July bill was R2 723.

Koster said the line was unlocked on July 1 and the August invoice was R9 279.

Koster said the company had investigated the complaint, met with the customer and concluded that the high usage was valid.

“The customer had live streaming on YouTube causing the billing address to incur high billing. A call limit cannot interrupt any live streaming sessions. It will continue billing as long as the streaming continues,” Koster said.

“Our consultant advised her due to the device recording every transaction, there was no possible way of [there having been a] cloned Sim. We empathise with her but, unfortunately, the live streaming charges are valid,” Koster said.

Since Madlala’s case is one of several “bill shock” complaints that I have received recently, I asked the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) whether it could intervene to force the networks to ensure call and data limits were not exceeded. It seems unfair, in my view, for consumers to be unable to control how much data they are prepared to use and pay for.

Icasa spokesperson Paseka Maleka said consumers in Madala’s position could send their complaints to the regulator for investigation.

“The authority receives lots of complaints from consumers relating to billing. In recent years, it has been found that a lot of consumers use data through SMS, WhatsApp, BBM and Internet. It is Icasa’s view that consumers need to be aware that those services are paid for and require some level of responsibility so they do not get shocked by the bill,” Maleka said.

However, Maleka avoided my question about whether Icasa would ever start forcing the networks to ensure data limits are not exceeded.

SA’s leading Internet and mobile technology expert, Arthur Goldstuck, said cellphone networks were not taking bill shock and roaming shock — high data charges when travelling abroad — seriously.

“They are just paying lip service,” Goldstuck said.

Goldstuck said Icasa should make it mandatory for cellphone networks to enforce call and data limits consumers requested.

“Icasa should mandate it and networks should be fined for incidents where the cap hasn’t been implemented,” Goldstuck said. “Not only should customers be refunded, the service provider should be fined,” Goldstuck said.

“Consumers think it’s only when they use apps and browse the web that they will incur costs but what’s happening is a lot of apps run and continue to be updated in the background.

“If you have an app running that is streaming video or radio, it is also possible you can run up those kinds of bills.

“I firmly believe this is one of the areas where the networks are showing a lack of interest in their consumers,” Goldstuck said.

Consumer Protection Act legal expert and Norton Rose Fulbright associate Burton Phillips advised consumers to set a call limit in writing when taking out a cellphone or data contract.

He added that consumers should delete and initial — together with the service provider — any terms and conditions that say the capping is not guaranteed as this would provide protection under the CPA if the network failed to provide the promised capping service.

“Consumers have a right to negotiate,” Phillips said.

Bill Shock:

• Smartphones downloading applications.

• International roaming.

• Inability to properly switch off the smartphone’s data usage portals.

• Lack of understanding of the difference between megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB) and how these are charged for when data is downloaded.

• Lack of understanding of WiFi usage instead of contracted data.

How to reduce bill charges:

• Understand all features on your smartphone.

• Make sure all unused applications are switched off.

• Get information on roaming from network providers before travelling abroad.

• Ask for a call limit facility and get written confirmation.

• Consider going prepaid.

• Use WiFi where it is available.

— Icasa.

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