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Mobile Carrier Digicel Stealing from Papua New Guineans

By: Brian Krammer

I have observed countless comments on social media over the past twelve months by individuals accusing Digicel of stealing from them. However they couldn't really explain why or how it was being done. I also noted a number of instances where credits on my own phone seemed to vanish into thin air. So I decided to take time out from my rather busy schedule exposing and deposing corruption of public funds to look into whether there was any truth in the allegations that Digicel has been stealing from it's customers.

What I uncovered was quite concerning, rather serious allegations that Digicel has committed deceptive and unfair practice of defrauding it's pre-paid customers who subscribe to their Mobile Data Plan Service.

Digicel PNG provides Mobile Data Service to its pre-paid customers. It offers a number of subscription data plans,

Data Plan Data Size FEE Validity Keyword Code MB Rate

Auto Pass 10MB 99t 24 Hours Auto 1689 0.099
Hour Pass 30MB K1.00 1 Hour Hour 1634 0.033
1 Day Pass 60MB K3.00 24 Hours 1D 1634 0.050
3 Day Pass 190MB K10.00 3 Days 3D 1634 0.053
7 Day Pass 450MB K20.00 7 Days 7D 1634 0.044
14 Day Pass 700MB K30.00 14 Days 14D 1634 0.043
30 Day Pass 1500MB K65.00 30 Days 30D 1634 0.043
Mega Pass 1.9GB K80.00 15 Days MEGA 1634 0.042
Super Pass 5GB K200.00 30 Days SUPER 1634 0.040
Jumbo Pass 9.5GB K300.00 30 Days JUMBO 1634 0.032

To subscribe to this data service customers SMS (text) a keyword to the a short code (1634). Example I normally subscribe to a 7 Day Plan 450MB at K20.00 by texting the keyword "7D" to +1634. I would then normally receive an SMS (text) response from Digicel in the following terms.

"You now have 450MB of data, valid for 7 days. To Check bal dial *130#. Try the Social Pass & get Free Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & PNG Loop.Dial *170#"

The 7 Day plan works out to 4.4 toea per MB (Mega Bite) of data, calculated by dividing K20.00 by 450MB. The last column shows the rate per MB under each plan. The most expensive plan per MB being Auto Pass 9.9 toea and lowest being the Jumbo Pass at 3.2 toea per MB. So if you use alot of data or time on the internet the best plan would be to go for Jumbo Pass (3.2 toea) although most people don't have a cool K300.00 balance on their phone so most will stick to 1, 3 or 7 Day Plans.

When you get down to 20MB under your plan Digicel will send you a text message stating

"Your 7 Day Pass has 20MB remaining. To get free Facebook, opt-in now to Social Pass Dial *170#.

Up to this point everything is straight forward, Digicel advertises to it's customers its pre-paid data plans, disclosing the rates and MB (Mega Bites of Data) per plan.

If you don't use up the data within the plan period (e.g. 7 days) you lose the data and forced to renew. If you use up all your data before the plan period expires you will receive a notification (text message) from Digicel that your data is about to expire. The message is in the following terms:

"Your 7 Day Pass has 20MB remaining. To get free Facebook. opt-in now to Social Media. Dail *170#"

It gives you the option to let it expire, renew or choose another plan if you don't have sufficient credits on your phone to renew.

Now this is where it gets interesting, what Digicel failed to disclose to you is that once you subscribe to a plan and it expired the subscription doesn't end there but your plan changes to a "out-of-bundle data plan" where you are charged a whopping 49 toea per MB which is taken straight from the balance of your phone and keeps charging you until your balance is used up. Of course this was all done without your knowledge or consent. How could you have possibly known it's not like Digicel has advertised this fact to in its data plan promotions or even included it in its terms of conditions.

For me on a 7 Day Plan meant I went from being charged 4.4 toea per MB to 49 toea a 1,103% price increase.

So where did the 49 toea out-of-bundle rate come from? Digicel website advertises the rate. Although when I inquired with Digicel Customer Service by dialing "123" they claim the out-of-bundle rate is 19 toea. Because Digicel failed to openly disclose or make known these charges to its customers or under its data plan promotion it's impossible to know for certain.

So for most Papua New Guineas who will buy a K3 or K5 credits to top up their phone and buy a 1 hour or 1 Day data plan/pass only 60MB once their data is used up the charges don't stop but sky rocket to 49 toea and deplete whatever balance is left on their phone in what seems like minutes. They are left confused and extremely frustrated failing to understand what happened to all their credits. Hence why many accuse Digicel of stealing from them.

In my case I normally purchase K100 credits at anyone time and then subscribe to 7 Day plan for K20.00 giving me 450MB of data and leaving me with a K80 balance, because I spend a lot of time on social media 7 Day Pass may finish within two or three days and if I forget to renew my plan Digicel will start to deduct 49 toea per MB from by K80.00 balance and will only stop charging me when the credits on my phone are all used up leaving me with K0.00 balance and 0 MB. This has happened to me on numerous occasions leaving me quite annoyed. A family member topped up their phone with K200 and when he tried to access the internet outside a plan his K200 was whipped out in an hour. I called Digicel Customer Service to make a complaint the Customer Service Operator claimed someone from their technical team would call me back, of course that never happened.

What people don't realise that any deceptive practice is a violation of our consumer rights. Consumer Affairs Council Act 1993 provides for the regulation of goods and services to consumers and the protection of consumer interests. Under the Act the State recognizes that consumers, have the following rights:
(a) right to safety;
(b) right to choice;
(c) right to consumer education;
(d) right to information;
(e) right to representation;
(f) right to redress

It's my view this Digicel's practice of charging its customers out-of-bundle service without their knowledge or consent violates our consumer rights to choice and information

Digicel customers don't understand the nature of the transaction they made no effective effort to explain it. Its customers could not exercise a proper choice because the charges were done without their knowledge or consent.

Digicel introduced the Data plan back in 2013 so one can only image the amount of hidden charges they have profited from under this alleged deceptive scheme.

In the commercial industry hidden charges are referred to as "BAIT & SWITCH" It is a form of fraud through false advertising or deceit in sales. First, customers are “baited” by advertising products or services at a low price but then the price is different; or the product or service is completely different then what was represented. Individuals who have suffered damages from bait and switch tactics may file a civil lawsuit based on fraud or a violation of consumer protection laws.

Recently in United States second largest mobile telecommunications company AT&T was recently forced to enter into an out of court settlement of USD$105 million or K304 million. The company was accused by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for allegedly charging their consumers for third-party subscriptions or services that they never ordered or authorized. Many consumers weren’t aware they had been paying up to $9.99 per month for seemingly random horoscope text messages, flirting tips, celebrity gossip, wallpaper or ringtones that showed up on their phones.

According to the FTC, there was no way AT&T customers were able to know about the charges nor did AT&T make it easy for them to know. FTC complaint alleges the phone bills sent to consumers were deceptive because the company lumped together all the charges to make it look like everything was related to AT&T’s mobile phone services. So when a consumer saw the overall balance due, the hidden charges were hard to detect. The terms of the settlement included that AT&T were forced to refund its customers the hidden charges and further ensured they first obtained their customers consent before billing them 3rd party charges.

Coincidentally since making inquiries into this issue Digicel has now ended the practice of applying out-of-bundle charges to customers who subscribe to its data plan service. As of two weeks ago when your data plan expires instead of applying out-of bundle charges is has now adopted the practice of plan auto renewal, also giving the customer the option not to renew. When your data plan is about to expire Digicel will now send you the following message;

"Your 7 Day Pass has 20MB remaining. Dail *777# to buy another 7 Day Pass; any unused data will rollover to your new pass."

When it expires the following message will be sent;

"You have now fully consumed your data pass allowance. Dail *777# to buy another pass."

To stop your data plan from auto renewing you have to dail *777#, a menu will appear providing one of five options. Option 4 to "Stop Auto-Renew."

You will receive a text message stating: "You have successfully stopped auto-renew for 7 Day Data Pass. Dial *777# to purchase a different pass, or to check balance."

While this recent change in practice is encouraging it doesn't in my opinion change the fact that Digicel has deceptively profited from it's customers by secretly charging them at out-of-bundle rates without their knowledge or consent and such profits should be refunded back to them.

I also note that Digicel came under fire recently for allegedly adopting the practice of charging its customers 12 toea for every unanswered call. In the past Digicel introduced an pre-recorded voice message advising its customers that they could leave a voice message after the beep but would be charged for it. Thus giving the customer the option to avoid any unnecessary charges by ending the call before the beep. They have removed the voice message and the beep is now applied without notice. However it has now changed this practice only after it received public wide criticism on social media and an article by Deputy Opposition Leader Hon. Sam Basil threatening to raise the issue on the floor of Parliament. However if you call someone who subscribes to Digicel voice mail service you will still be charged 20 toea after the peep.

Again although it's encouraging that Digicel has taken corrective measures the question remains how much did they profit while this alleged deceptive practice was in service?? Surely they must have known what they were doing was wrong, unfair and deceptive?

So what now?? Well while I can't pursue criminal cases against corrupt politicians” as yet" I can pursue class action lawsuits against multi-million multi-national companies who profit from deceptive Bait & Switch" practices in PNG.

To remedy alleged injustices committed I now wish to put Digicel on notice that they have 30 days to review and refund all its customers who were unjustly charged and their consumer rights violated.

Should they fail to comply then in the interest of public policy I will travel the width and breath of PNG to sign up any and every Digicel customer from the village, settlement, bus stop to the office block who believe Digicel has violated their consumer rights to initiate the largest class action lawsuit in this country's history.

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