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Roaming complaints down but disputed charges increase

12 December 2012

The TIO regularly receives complaints from consumers who return to Australia after travelling overseas to large bills caused by using mobile roaming.

Some of the experiences that consumers tell us about in their complaints suggest that many receive little information about mobile roaming and the charges associated with the service before they leave the country or when they are overseas.

New mobile complaints to the TIO about disputed roaming charges increased in 2011-12 by almost 70 per cent compared to the previous year to more than 4,100 issues.

However, between April and September 2012 there has been a positive trend of decreases in roaming complaints. In April-June, issues about disputed roaming charges almost halved compared to the previous quarter, and there was a further 6 per cent decrease in July-September 2012.

However, the amounts that consumers dispute in these complaints have been increasing. The proportion of mobile roaming complaints with disputed amounts above $5,000 has increased from 4.7 per cent in September 2011 to 10.4 per cent in September 2012.

Between 1 October 2011 and 30 September 2012 we received 156 roaming complaints that involved disputed amounts between $5,000 and $10,000. We also received 79 complaints with disputed amounts above $10,000. These complaints include:

  • a consumer who requested a $129 per month plan so she could make calls during a nine -week holiday in Europe, yet returned to a $75,000 bill. Subsequent bills increased the amount to $147,908, the highest disputed amount in the past 15 months
  • a consumer who, while on holiday in South Africa, thinking that his mobile phone was connected to the hotel’s wifi, used it to connect a laptop to the internet. When he returned to Australia, he received a $38,000 bill
  • a consumer who went overseas for a week-long business trip and received an $18,000 bill on return.   

Mobile roaming complaints to the TIO represented around $8 million in disputed charges over the past 15 months, or an average of $1.6 million each quarter.

“Some consumers who are travelling overseas for business or leisure are returning to telephone bills that are more costly than the trips themselves,” Ombudsman Simon Cohen said. “Where consumers have not been fully informed about the potential for these high charges and how they can protect themselves from these bills before international roaming is activated and while they are travelling, the potential for substantial detriment is very clear.”

Unexpectedly high international roaming charges are neither in the interest of individual consumers, nor of service providers that are dealing with disputed debts that consumers did not expect and cannot afford. While the recent decrease in complaints is positive, there is a real potential for these to continue to increase over time if the problem is not thoroughly tackled.

There is potential for disputes about roaming charges to continue and increase as more Australians travel overseas and use their communication devices to stay in touch with family and friends, or to conduct business.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the number of Australians going overseas for short visits is increasing. In 2011-12, there were more than 8 million short term departures from Australia – an increase of 7.4 per cent from the previous year.

The continuing take-up of smartphones and tablets is likely to increase international roaming usage – and may increase disputes about the charges involved. Many of these devices have roaming capability and can also download data without the user being aware of the usage if the settings are not properly adjusted.

Small business consumers have also been affected by high charges resulting for international roaming. In July-September 2011, 14.1 per cent of all complaints about this issue were made by small businesses. This proportion increased to 19 per cent in July-September 2012.

In August 2012, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, directed the Australian Communications and Media Authority to develop an industry standard that would apply to all service providers that supply international roaming to their customers. The TIO has provided information and views to assist the ACMA in undertaking this work.

“I recognise the problem is complex” Mr Cohen said. “Our recommendations, based on the complaints made by consumers, focus on ensuring the best information is made available to assist them to make choices about the use of and potential charges which may result from mobile roaming.”

TIO recommendations include:

  • a service provider should obtain specific and informed consent from the consumer before activating international roaming
  • on a consumer’s arrival overseas and during their stay, the provider should give information about costs of using the mobile service, including unit price based information (for example, the cost of making/receiving a two minute phone call or downloading a MB of data), and wherever possible spend alerts
  • a service provider should be able to restrict a consumer’s access to roaming where charges are quickly accruing to reduce the risk of an unexpectedly high charge.

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