Protect your pocket from surprise charges

2015-05-28 06:00

CELLPHONE network data bill shock complaints are fairly common and not limited to a specific service provider, so if you own a smartphone or tablet it’s always wise to be proactive and protect your pocket from surprise charges.

Mohamed A was the latest consumer to complain about bill shock after his R99 a month Vodacom dongle account rocketed first to R425 in March and then to R3 567,75 in April for no apparent reason.

Mohamed first picked up a problem when his Internet account was suspended because the limit had been reached.

“This came as a surprise as I have never exceeded the allocated data from the inception of this account (in August 2014) and my bill was religiously R99 per month,” he said.

Mohamed said he had asked both his local Vodacom branch and the network’s call centre to provide a statement showing data usage after staff advised that his complaint had been investigated and that the usage charges were valid.

“I was informed … that Vodacom cannot divulge or supply proof of the usage via printout, and that the amounts in question were reached and are valid,” he said.

Mohamed turned to me for help, saying he was prepared to accept responsibility once he had viewed a printout as proof of usage and billing.

However, Vodacom spokesperson Richard Boorman said there were “literally billions of individual chunks of billable data traffic generated” on the network daily and it was not realistic or possible to provide a meaningful data consumption report.

“The approach to billing is analogous to your home water or electricity bill. The utilities monitor usage and send you a bill based on usage — they are not expected to tell you how each individual unit of water or electricity was consumed in your home,” Boorman said.

Boorman said Vodacom could provide “guidance on where the major portions of data were used” in the event of bill shock.

He added that Mohamed’s bundle had depleted in March and he had incurred “out-of-bundle charges” for data on several occasions.

“Since the SIM was in a WiFi mobile hotspot, it’s possible that a number of devices could have been connected at the same time,” he said.

In the end Vodacom agreed to refund Mohamed R3 042,76 for the data usage as a “goodwill gesture” and in a letter of explanation advised that when a device is connected to the Internet it could send or receive “large amounts of data” without the user being aware … normally caused by malware, automatic software updates, large file downloads and device background activity”.

Boorman advised consumers to manage data by ensuring usage notifications were sent via SMS to a cellphone, not the dongle, and by tracking consumption with the Vodacom App.

“That way it’s easy to buy another bundle without incurring out-of-bundle charges,” he said.

SA National Consumer Union vice-chairman Clif Johnston said the organisation had received many complaints about “unexpected and outrageous charges” for data consumption.

“Our advice is to avoid contracts altogether where they provide for high out-of-bundle rates. Rather choose a ‘top-up’ contract where the service stops when airtime or data runs out, until it is topped up again. Best of all, buy the instrument separately and use a pay-as-you-go service,” Johnston said.

Johnston said Sancu had asked service providers to include a warning on smartphone packaging about possible high data charges and an explanation of how to turn off the data function or to restrict connection to WiFi services.

However, he said service providers had responded by saying cellphones were provided in manufacturers’ packaging and this would not be feasible.

“Sancu disagrees, but it is clearly not in the interests of service providers to alert consumers to this possibility, as they must make handsome profits from out-of-bundle data,” he said.

Johnston said it was unfair that consumers were not informed of the potential hazard of high data usage.

“Combining the instrument and usage ‘bundles’ in one package is rather like buying a car under a contract that includes a monthly amount of petrol, where unused petrol at the end of the month is forfeited and where any petrol exceeding the monthly allocation costs 10 times the standard price,” he said.

“Nobody would buy a car under such conditions, yet that is the equivalent of what most cellphone service providers offer.”

Johnston advised consumers facing a high bill to escalate a formal complaint with the network and to lodge any unresolved complaints with the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman and the National Consumer Commission.

Send your consumer complaints and compliments to consumer@3i.co.za

Tips to avoid bill shock

• Do not leave your device connected to the Internet when you do not need to be connected.

• Switch off automatic software updates on your smartphone or tablet.

• Ensure you have sufficient protective measures against viruses, spy-ware and ad-ware.

• Listening to music or watching and downloading movies contain large amounts of data.

• Protect your device against unauthorised use and access via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and WiFi.

• Applications like locations services, drop-box, i-cloud and uploading photos on social media sites require a significant amount of data and should be avoided.

• Always subscribe to a data bundle if you are using a smartphone to avoid being charged R2 per MB on each connection to the Internet.

- Vodacom

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