Telco disputes service gets a fillip

After some pull out, 2degrees says it is hoping to join the scheme

The Telecommunications Disputes Resolution Service is showing signs of coming of age after handing down its first rulings.

Four telecommunications companies have quietly pulled out of the voluntary scheme over the past year. But a spokeswoman for mobile network operator 2degrees, Bryony Hillness, says 2degrees is reviewing its participation and hopes to join the scheme before July.

The number of dissatisfied customers who contacted the resolution service to lay complaints against their telco jumped 16 per cent to 1621 in 2009, the scheme's second year of operation, according to a just-published annual report.

The service could not look into 1496 of the complaints. That was either because the customer had not yet taken their complaint up directly with their provider, or because the matter was still working its way through providers' own internal complaints procedures.

But 18 disputes did go to arbitration and 30 others were escalated to adjudicators, who can fine scheme members up to $12,000. By comparison, just one case went to adjudication in 2008.

Decisions included ordering a mobile network provider to refund $7000 of an $8000 bill that a customer incurred using a data stick to access the internet overseas.

The customer said he had been told by a salesman the charges were only "slightly higher" than using the data stick in New Zealand.

The adjudicator said the advice breached the Fair Trading Act and the customer complaints code.

Another customer who had his Sim card stolen from his phone while overseas was not so fortunate. An adjudicator ruled he was liable for a $11,000 bill that had been run up on his account.

The most complaints concerned:

— Billing disputes, including an increasing number of complaints about internet data and roaming charges;

— Poor customer service;

— Complaints about moisture-damaged mobile phones;

— Aggressive sales tactics and poor advice;

— Unauthorised subscriptions to mobile phone premium text services. In most cases customers were "completely unaware they had signed up to the services".

State-owned internet provider Orcon said last month that it would withdraw from the service, saying smaller telecommunications companies were paying a disproportionate share of its running costs, which totalled $613,900 last year.

CallPlus abandoned it in March last year, WorldxChange pulled out in May and eziphone — which provides pre-paid home phone lines to people with poor credit histories — withdrew in July.

Telecom, TelstraClear, Vodafone and a handful of smaller providers remain in the scheme.

NZX-listed TeamTalk refused to join when the service was established in 2007.

Chief executive David Ware accused the Telecommunications Carriers Forum, which oversees the service, of "empire-building" and criticised a condition that means complaints are confidential and offenders cannot be identified.

Woosh and Compass Communications are also not members.

Telecommunications Disputes Resolution Council chairman and former Consumers Institute chief executive David Russell says the allocation of costs between scheme members remains an issue.

But he said in the service's annual report that companies that stood outside the scheme were depriving customers of an important service.

"We know that some companies that have not joined the TDRS have a large number of disgruntled customers.

"In 2009, 11 percent of all the calls the TDRS received were related to non-scheme members."

A survey showed 95 percent of people who used the service were satisfied, he said.

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