Read online pop-up adverts carefully to avoid unwittingly subscribing to costly services

2014-10-21 00:00

WHEN an annoying advert pops up while you’re online, rudely obscuring the content you were viewing, an impulsive reaction is to click “x” in the top corner to make it disappear.

But if the initial click to close doesn’t work, and in frustration you click a few times elsewhere on the advert, without reading it of course, you could inadvertently end up signing up for a costly transaction.

And if you don’t regularly check your cellphone and data contract statements you could end up forking out more than expected for an unwanted service.

These were the lessons that emerged after a livid consumer, Rorie Anderson, complained to me that in August he found an irregular R7 “daily” charge on his statement for a R69-a-month data contract with Vodacom. This was followed in October by a further R483,36 for “data services” and “data usage” over and above the monthly fee.

Fortunately, Anderson regularly checks his statements and picked up the additional charges before they could escalate further.

When Anderson asked Vodacom why his bill was so high, he was informed that Smartcall Technology Solutions (STS), a wireless application service provider, an aggregator of data content services, had billed him for a daily data service.

“I informed them that I had no knowledge of this and that I had not been contracted to them in any way,” he said.

Anderson was adamant that he had not noticed any unusual adverts online nor had he accidentally clicked to agree to any data subscription services.

He is not alone as I found dozens of similar gripes about STS posted on an online consumer forum.

Anderson said he had sent e-mails to both companies demanding a refund but without success.

When I asked Vodacom and STS why Anderson had been billed for a service he had not requested, both were adamant their online billing systems made it impossible for a consumer to subscribe unless agreeing in a “double opt-in” process.

Vodacom’s Richard Boorman said the process takes consumers to a second screen to “confirm” a subscription service before it can be activated.

“The double opt-in set-up was established precisely to avoid anyone being subscribed for a service without their consent. We will only process billing from third party service providers if our own systems confirm that the double opt-in was completed,” he said.

However, Anderson remained adamant he had not subscribed.

STS spokesperson Lorinda Wepener said the process was in line with the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association’s (Waspa) code of conduct that the company adhered to.

However, she agreed to give Anderson a “full refund” of R182.

And so it emerged that the R301,36 difference had in fact been billed by Vodacom for data usage exceeding the contract’s one gigabyte limit.

In the end, Vodacom also agreed to refund the charges.

Boorman advised consumers to make sure that they had a cellphone number listed on their data accounts so that usage warning SMSes could be sent to a cellphone rather than to a dongle where they can be missed.

But what about those pesky adverts?

Waspa spokesperson James McNab advised consumers to lodge complaints with the association regarding problems with aggregators and online subscription services.

McNab said the association mediated between the parties and if a complaint was not resolved it would be referred to an adjudicator, such as an independent ICT lawyer, who would decide if the code had been breached. According to the code sanctions may include ordering a company to refund a customer, a fine, blocking access to online services or expulsion.

McNab advised consumers to read pop-up adverts carefully to avoid unwittingly subscribing to services.

He advised consumers to also look for any SMSes welcoming them to data services when logging in using a dongle, in order to unsubscribe quickly in case of accidental sign-ups.

• Send your consumer issues to

Lyse Comins at

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