Protest against platform for third party

A Vodacom subscriber who was billed for an unwanted content provider believes cellphone companies will only see reason if people voice their unhappiness through social media.

The outrage shown by the twitterati forced Momentum to review their business practices after they refused to pay a death benefit to the family of a breadwinner after he was killed in a hijacking attempt at his KwaZulu-Natal home. Momentum cited an undisclosed medical condition, diabetes, as the reason.

Tania Ajam is convinced that thousands of other mobile phone users have had similar experiences to hers which, she alleged, are enabled by a regulatory environment that permits companies like “Vodacom to perpetuate their predatory practices”.

The Rosebank resident is a Vodacom subscriber and noticed on the Vodacom app that she was being billed for Fun Chat content and Vodacom Live entertainment services but she was adamant that she did not subscribe to them, even though the call centre agent told her otherwise.

“Even if I had clicked a link inadvertently I received no confirmation request or reminder which the code of conduct requires. There was also no information about pricing or how to opt out of the service. The Vodacom call centre agent undertook to discontinue the service for me, and to refund my money. The entertainment charge was for Vodacom Live charging me something like R5 a day.

“The amount is negligible but hopefully I’ll receive the refund. Vodacom doesn’t provide a breakdown of the individual services on the invoice. I had no idea what the charges were for until I contacted their call centre. I believe Vodacom is aiding and abetting unscrupulous third party service providers by making their billing so non-transparent. Although the call centre agent offered promptly to terminate the service and refund the money, I am still aggrieved. As I believe it is unethical for Vodacom to allow third parties to place charges on my Vodacom contract, especially since I had not subscribed to the services. I noticed my bill was higher than usual, but assumed I had exceeded my data allocation and was paying out-of-bundle rates – which was not the case. I am sure that my complaint about the Fun Chat services (provided by Nigerian company Funmobile) is not the first one Vodacom has received; yet they continue to make money by providing a veneer of respectability through their brand for predatory third party service providers,”
Dr Ajam said.

When Dr Ajam complained to the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA) it took more than an hour because of the process and she had to go back to the agent to get the name of the content provider. Neither Funmobile nor Vodacom/ Vodacom Live were members of Waspa and were outside their jurisdiction and advised Ms Ajam to contact ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of South Africa), which she did. But she could only lay a complaint 14 days after the alleged breach, which was “another bureaucratic hurdle”.

Vodacom confirmed that
Dr Ajam was billed for content services and subscribed to Air G services. “We have stopped the service and blocked your number from future subscriptions for this service.”

They said a credit of R127.92 will reflect on her billing within seven days.

‘However,” Dr Ajam said, “Consumers do not have effective protection from rapacious mobile service providers, and may not have the resources to pursue unfair treatment like this. I entrusted my banking details to Vodacom but they abused my trust by providing my details to a third party. There is a huge regulatory vacuum in terms of protecting the consumer so mobile providers have no incentive to discontinue their unethical but profitable behaviour. I have learned from this sorry situation that you SMS “STOP ALL” to 31050 to terminate all content related services and that the mobile service provider is able to block all content and entertainment services on request. This should be the default option.”

She wanted to know why Vodacom act as a platform for an unknown third party wireless service provider (WSP) to access her bank account, but do not take responsibility for ensuring that the WSP adheres to Waspa’s code of conduct.

But Vodacom offered no explanation.

“Everything on the Waspa and Icasa websites is in English which is a huge barrier for mobile users who use English as a second language.’

Referring to Momentum’s U-turn, after considerable damage to their reputation, to pay all violent crime claims, past, present and future, regardless of previous medical history, Dr Ajam said: “I don’t see how Vodacom, despite the resources at their disposal, can ignore public outrage in an age of social media. Even a single fine opens the door prima facie to a class action suit, which can be crowdfunded on various platforms. I am sure there are tens of thousands of customers out there who are as gatvol as I am.

“If the regulators are too incompetent to protect us, perhaps we consumers need to do it for ourselves.”

Dr Ajam confirmed that Vodacom repaid the money. She recorded the conversation in which the agent told her they have a new policy and will exercise additional oversight on WSP platforms.

“I have complained to Icasa but I am clear that Vodacom must be fined. Why should they be compelled by the regulator to do what is ethically right by the customer?”