Seeing red: Vodacom charges woman R90,000 for its blaps
A Cape Town resident is furious after her credit was downgraded for an account she claims she didn't open
Despite its jolly groove, the jingle that accompanies the dialling tone for Vodacom call centres is the sound of many South Africans’ nightmarish frustrations.
For Cape Town resident Gill Ritchie, it’s a noise she no longer cares to endure.
Sitting with an invoice billing her for nearly R90,000 over six months for an account that she claims she never opened, Ritchie said the telecoms service provider has left her with a credit downgrade, suspended service, loss of business, legal fees and an unquantifiable amount of stress.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said of the financial woes this incident has created. “And it all starts with Vodacom.”Ritchie, who owns a construction firm and works as a volunteer firefighter, upgraded her phone at her local Constantia branch in October 2017 – and the mysterious account that has run up amounts from R16,000 a month began appearing on her statements shortly afterwards. R18,000 was debited from her bank account at the end of October and alarm bells were raised.“I waited on the phone for someone from the call centre to answer for 90 minutes”, she said, adding that she was bounced around various departments and that each gave her a different account of the issue.
“I informed them that at no stage had I signed up for any of the accounts and I cancelled the debit order.”
But the bills kept piling up and by December, when Ritchie had submitted a formal complaint of fraud to Vodacom, complete with signed affidavit, her account was in arrears to to the tune of R54,000.“I spent most of Christmas and New Years fighting with Vodacom. There were times when I was so frustrated that I was sitting in the store crying,” she said.
Months went by and, despite her best efforts, Ritchie was unable to receive any support from Vodacom. She said the company was “impossible to communicate with”.
Her phone account was suspended as she had dishonoured payments and she was forced to change bank accounts. Ritchie sought legal counsel, but high attorney fees and the prospect of drawn out mediation left her disillusioned.“I can’t afford to pay for an attorney at R1,700 an hour,” she said.
A Vodacom spokesperson who investigated the matter last week after speaking to Times Select said that this was not a case of fraud, but rather a fibre line had been “erroneously added to the customer’s bill”.
“Vodacom aspires to high levels of customer service,” he said. “Unfortunately in this instance we have fallen well short on this front and apologise to Mrs Ritchie for the inconvenience this has caused.”
The spokesperson blamed an “inadvertent error by a sales administrator” for the problem.
Despite Vodacom’s assurances that the account will be taken off her name and that they will ensure that the incident doesn’t negatively affect her credit rating, Ritchie still feels unduly remunerated – and her services remain suspended.“What about the loss of business, the personal stress this whole thing has caused? I know that I’m not the first or last person this is going to affect.
“I’m at my absolute wit’s end,” she said.
A glance at Vodacom’s online community forum reveals the generally unfavourable experience of South African consumers, who report similar issues with unsolicited debits and extremely long waiting times on the call centre.
Trudie Broekman from Broekman Attorneys said that there were ways of circumventing the arduous process of waiting for response from the call centres.“Avoid the call centres at all costs,” she said. “It’s always more effective to threaten rather than report. Approach the head of the legal department at Vodacom directly.
“If the matter is not resolved in 14 days, the threat of going to Icasa (Independent Communications Authority of SA) should be enough to wake them up to the issue,” she said.
Broekman said that consumers can alternatively turn to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in certain instances, “where they charge for services not provided to the particular customer, those charges are self-evidently unfair, unreasonable and unjust”.“The penalty in the CPA for prohibited conduct is a fine of a maximum of 10% of Vodacom’s turnover for the last financial year, or R1-million, whichever is the higher amount,” she said. “If the consumer wishes this fine to be imposed, she can lodge a complaint with the National Consumer Commission.”
Regarding the blacklisting, Lauren Lewis of Trudie Broekmann Attorneys said it is possible to get your credit back in order without having to deal with Vodacom itself.
“In my experience with TransUnion and Experian Credit Bureaus, in order to remove a negative listing from your profile you have to prove to the Credit Bureau that the debt to which the negative listing refers is not your debt or was loaded in error,” she said.
“Each credit bureau will usually require the consumer to complete and submit a form setting out the details of the negative listing which is erroneously reflected on the consumer’s profile.”