Friday, 24 May 2013

Informed consent (or "Beware of the Leopard")

In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent has discovered that his house is due to be demolished.
"But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display..."

"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a flashlight."

"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."
Not all companies make things this difficult to find but some certainly seem to go out of their way to hide or obscure them. The furniture stores are a very good example of this. They go out of their way to make their store credit agreement both difficult to understand and even difficult to see. In a recent experiment we sent mystery shoppers out to investigate. Each of them expressed an interest in a household item and in buying it on credit. Every time they asked to see a copy of the credit agreement they were told no, they could only see that when they sign it, not before. Without exception. That’s the equivalent of hiding the contracts in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'.

I’m afraid that cellphone network providers are just as bad.

Do you have any idea how much it costs to make calls on your cellphone when you travel abroad? Neither do I. And neither do the network providers.

A few months ago a reader approached us with a nightmare story. Her son had travelled to South Africa and taken the family iPad, a Mascom 3G-enabled one with him. After he’d been there for about a week she got a call from Mascom warning her that he’d already incurred P20,000 in roaming charges and she might want to tell him to stop web-surfing. Startled, she did exactly that and he stopped surfing immediately but this wasn’t the end of the story. Their bill for the iPad that arrived at the end of the month was for a jaw-dropping, staggering, heart attack-inducing P280,000, all for one week of web surfing.

Obviously the first thing they did was demand a detailed bill from Mascom that justified this astonishing bill. No luck. That was impossible. All Mascom could say was that they’d received a massive bill from Vodacom and it was up to the customer to pay it.

It turned out that the problem was that the son had been an area where Mascom’s preferred roaming partner, MTN, didn’t offer a signal so he’d innocently connected to Vodacom instead, not realising that the data download cost was something like 20 times higher with Vodacom than with MTN. This was sorted out in the end, when Mascom did the decent thing and only charged them the original P20,000 they warned them about. That’s still a fortune but they understood that their son had downloaded a large amount of data before being asked to stop. But it’s a lot better than P280,000.

I need to say clearly that this isn’t just a problem with Mascom. I’ve heard of just as many cases with Orange customers facing outrageous bills when they roam.

The problem is that neither Mascom or Orange make it clear that this is a potential problem. On their web site Mascom show the roaming rates for MTN but give no clues about the price of roaming with Vodacom. Orange just say on their web site that customer should “get in touch with us to confirm whether roaming is available at their country of destination and ther applicable roaming rates.”

It’s no better when you phone them. We called both the Mascom and Orange call centers and were told things like “It’s quite expensive”, that they “don’t have specific charges” and “I can’t tell”, “We don’t know” and “I can’t find out.” The only roaming rates available were Mascom’s MTN rates, nothing else.

It seems like they’re keeping their roaming rates in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'.

It might seem that I’m picking on Mascom and Orange but I’m not, I’m just using them as an example of companies that feel free to charge us amounts that we never agreed to, couldn’t possibly agree to because Mascom and Orange don’t seem to know themselves.

Maybe this is another opportunity for a regulator to step in? I’m don’t like over-regulation but there are times when we consumers need someone with authority to step in and get rough. NBFIRA are doing it, BOTA are doing it and even the Bank of Botswana are doing it. You don’t think banks publish their tariffs of charges in the papers every so often because they’re nice people do you? They do it because they’re obliged to do it by the Bank of Botswana and if they don’t the Governor will visit them carrying a big stick and hit them with it until they obey.

Maybe our newest regulator, the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority, could use this opportunity to visit the cellphone network providers with their big stick, remove the sign saying “Beware of the Leopard” and force them to tell us what they’ll charge us when we roam? And if they don’t keep they can just hit them repeatedly with the stick until they do.

1 comment:

Kasey Chang said...

Very common problem in the west. One guy in Canada went to Mexico, and his son kept on using the iPhone for videos, and received $20000 bill

And here's a lady who went to Africa... and racked up $37000 phone bill.

Of course, that's nothing compared to the $200000 (yes, six digits) phone bill this lady got merely by going to Canada from the US:

The most outrageous phone bill of all time is... $210 TRILLION DOLLARS, made by a DEAD person. (no joke)