Sancu Vice Chairperson Ina Wilken told Fin24 that in 2015, the union received nearly 500 cellphone-related complaints, with some being sent to the Consumer Commission.

“It seems to me the big issue here is the bundles,” she said. “Smartphones have the ability to devour huge quantities of data when performing certain of their functions and this can easily exceed the amount of data provided for in monthly contracts. When this happens, a new tariff, which is often much higher, applies for the excess data.

“We have had complaints from consumers who received accounts for as much as R18 000. There are customers with R20 500 bills and the problem has not been sorted out. We are waiting for feedback and trust we will be able to give definite answers to consumers.”

Wilken said customers received bundles or topped up, but were never notified when the data was depleted. “They then got a shock when they received their statements or their phone was cut off.”

Many problems also occur due to provider ignorance, said Wilken. “Customers claim they ask the provider to let them know if their accounts reach the R1 000 mark – they are not notified and they get a surprise when their debit order indicates a withdrawal of R5 200.”

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She claimed that cellphone service providers are quick to sell smartphones to new account holders and to upgrade existing clients to smartphones, but fail to alert the consumer to the possible high costs involved when downloading data and how to avoid them.

Wilken pointed out that Sancu issued a recommendation as far back as October 2014 to service providers to supply information on how to turn off automatic software updates and data connections on smartphone boxes.

She said many consumers, especially those who purchase or upgrade to smartphones for the first time, are unaware that their phones can download data without their knowledge, for which they will be responsible.

Sancu wants them to make provision for a warning on boxes of new cellphones, informing consumers that unless they deactivate the automatic downloading of data and updates on their cellphones, they may incur astronomical charges for out-of-bundle data.

“So far, there are no signs of this being implemented,” Wilken said.

“I would urge cellphone companies and providers to immediately see to it that this is done – the Consumer Protection Act No 68 of 2008 which was implemented on 30 April 2011 very explicitly protects consumers of their rights and states that all information with regard to a product should be made clear to consumers in order for them to make an informed choice. This is one of our basic rights: the right to be informed.”

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MTN SA marketing and sales executive Larry Annetts told Fin24 that MTN informs its customers when they reach their data limits via a range of options, including an SMS alert and soft-locking.

“MTN introduced soft-locking for customers who are on the Converged and Hybrid packages when they reach their credit limit. In addition, MTN has also introduced New Price, which allows customers to control their spend.”

Annetts said in cases where customers are aggrieved about their data charges, MTN investigates each case on its own merit to validate usage.

He added that MTN is not aware of Sancu’s proposal, although he added that the company has developed a YouTube video that educates customers about cost-effective usage of their smart devices.

“We educate our customers to frequently check their data bundle balance by dialling *111# or download the My Vodacom App,” said Vodacom communication specialist Andile April.

“We advise customers to buy a data bundle, especially if they plan on doing big downloads and updates. Data usage will then be consumed from the data bundle at cheaper in-bundle rates so they are able to save.”

April recommended that customers manually update apps, download software and Cloud-sync.

“Customers should rather change their settings to only do updates when they manually activate it, or when their devices are connected to a wifi network. This way, you’ll always know when you’re using a lot of data.”

Telkom spokesperson Pynee Chetty told Fin24: “Telkom always endeavours to educate its data subscribers on the tools available to them to manage their data.”

He outlined several mechanisms that Telkom has in place to manage bill shock for data users, which include an SMS reminder to a subscriber at three different usage thresholds, depending on the data bundle size, as well as redirecting a subscriber to a page where they are presented with the option to either continue at out-of-bundle rates, or purchase a once-off Internet bundle for contract subscribers.

For prepaid/hybrid subscribers, there is an additional option to recharge with airtime via EFT or credit card purchase or redeem an airtime voucher and then purchase the data bundle. Should a subscriber opt to do nothing, they will fail to establish an internet connection until their preferred choice is selected.

– News24 Wire