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Operators billing services without user consent

Despite TRAI's regulation most operators activate value added services (VAS) services such as caller ringback tones and alerts without written consent from users.

In April 2009, TRAI mandated that telecom operators must take user consent in the form of SMS, fax or email before activating value added services such as alerts and caller ringback tones. Are operators doing this? To find out, we conducted a survey.

The survey results clearly show that almost all operators are violating the norms. They activate these services mostly on prepaid accounts without taking user consent. In our survey we found that operators serve unwanted value added services (VAS) more often to prepaid users rather than to post paid users. These services typically cost Rs 30 per month and in an industry where average revenue per user is less than Rs 150, this is a big amount.

After the survey we also tried prepaid numbers from some operators ourselves, and within weeks we faced a similar situation. Vodafone, Reliance Communications, Airtel, Idea and Tata Indicom all activated caller ring back tones without our consent. And when we complained asking for the service to be stopped and for our money to be refunded, this, by and large, was the response across operators: “When the money has already been deducted, why don’t you use the service for one month; we won’t refund your money as you are complaining after seven days of the service having been activated.”

We had a bad experience with Vodafone. First, reaching customer care through the IVR maze was agony, after which they plainly refused to listen. Ninety per cent of people we surveyed said that caller ring back tones were activated without their knowledge. It seems that this particular VAS service has been chosen because the user doesn’t know he has a caller ring back tone until he is charged for it, by which time it is apparently too late to get a refund.

The remaining ten per cent of people we surveyed said they get an alert such as astro, news, Bollywood etc, which they never wanted. Prepaid users are most harassed by inadvertent VAS activation, while post paid users mostly claimed that they have never faced this problem. We found that most people who face these problems are not really mobile savvy. Many users said that their parents’ mobile numbers were activated with unwanted VAS.

In rural and small town markets it seems rampant, and people in these areas also complain about customer care being unresponsive. Amongst the operators we tested, Airtel was the best and almost half the Airtel subscribers we surveyed said they never faced any VAS related issues. However, the rest have had to pay for unwanted VAS, some times even for multiple services they don’t need. The most dejected users s among those we surveyed were from Reliance Communications and Tata Indicom with almost 90 per cent subscribers complaining about unwanted VAS activations.

Vodafone and Idea were marginally better and yet almost 86 and 89 per cent users of these services, respectively, faced the unwanted VAS issue at least once. We surveyed subscribers of Airtel, Reliance Communications, Tata Indicom, Idea, and Vodafone. Our sample comprised 200 people (175 prepaid and 25 postpaid users), and we also bought prepaid cards to double check the validity of the pre paid users’ complaints.

We used social networking and personal interactions with users to arrive at these conclusions. Monthly mobile bills of each survey participant amounts to more than Rs 200.

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