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Consumer Affairs
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Gripes – when R1 049 is R1 248

It isn’t surprising VodaCon has so many subscribers. For one thing there’s no where else to go (except for a competitor who is pulling the same tricks) and for another the company forces people to keep buying new numbers. We have five cellphones in our business, but eight cellphone numbers. So by definition we are eight subscribers. Kind of boosts the VodaCon subscriber figures by 60%, doesn’t it?

It’s a real con. Consider this. You go in to buy, say, a Motorola ‘Pebble’ cellphone — model PBL U6 actually. It costs R1 049.00 including VAT. There’s the same model nearby also on the wall for R1 249.00, but since that includes a contract with a starter pack, which you don’t need, you take the cheaper option.
“Ah, but, no, you have to buy a starter pack,” explains the gormless sales lady (we think she’s gormless because she misinformed us about an alternative phone one of us wanted and now we have to fight to get the phones changed – but that is another story).
“But we don’t want another starter pack,” we bleat. There are now two of us at the counter. “We already have two spare numbers.”
“Well, you have to buy a starter pack with that package if you want the phone at that price.”
“But it isn’t at that price. That is a fictitious price! What you are telling us is that we cannot leave Makro with this phone by paying R1 049.00?” I went on to declare this was a con. “You can’t ‘price’ something at R1 049 if it costs R199 more.”
The sales lady smiled weakly, and said nothing. Such logic was confusing her. A mindless victim of authoritarianism, the implications of VodaCon’s con was completely lost on her. Her manageress was annoyed. I irritated her further by insisting she raise the matter with management. “You can’t advertise something for one price and sell it for more. It’s theft!”
Of course, my protestations were of no avail.
I am so tired of the likes of VodaCon; tired of all their advertising —which their users all have to pay for, by the way — promising freedom and happy days, and claiming things like their puffy nonsense:

“Vodago Prepaid, packed with the power of Vodacom, South Africa’s Leading Cellular Network, keeps you in touch wherever you are.”

That’s a downright lie. I have been to several places in South Africa where you cannot get a signal; and I have been in many cities and suffered dropped calls. Messages like:
• Network busy;
• Temporary network problem;
• Link not available; and,
• Packet data connection closed by the network,

are frequent message belying their claims.
It’s all just blaffle. And as for their ‘power’, well, it’s just about as effective as Eskom’s.
Their agreements are equally tricky. The coupon with the number we don’t want advises, ‘Please check the activate by date on this certificate.’
A careful search of the certificate and we finally discover it printed sideways near a bar code: Activate by 2008-12-04. Presumably that’s 4th December 2008. Seems simple enough. Well, no, actually. A chance appraisal of page seven of the over-grandly titled ‘Vodacom Power Starter Pack’ booklet reveals an ‘activity rule’:

In the unlikely event that you are inactive…. for 7 months your connection to the Vodacom network will be terminated and your cellular number and remaining credits will be forfeited……. Calls free of charge will not be seen as activity.

Pretty cleaver, eh? So the activation deadline is actually 20th August 2007, as it happens. I remember we got caught by this once before. Then we did need a number and had to go and buy another starter pack.
It reminds me of a sneaky clause GSM, a cellphone company at the time, had in its 24-month contract some years ago. It essentially said you could not cancel the contract during the contract period without penalty. The next clause required three months cancellation notice. So you had to diarise to give notice on the final date of the contract, or the debit order for the old phone would continue rolling in. In any case you had to continue paying for a further three months to fulfil the notice period. Which is another way of saying a 24-month contract is actually a 27-month contract.
But that was many years ago, and since then the cellular network providers have continued to move the goalposts. Essentially they try and make as much money for their services as possible by funny clauses and practices for as long as they can, before suddenly marketing with great fanfare that they have, for instance, improved the service once again.
Remember when you had to pay 60 cents to download each telephone message? People quickly cottoned on to the fact they were paying a great deal of money to hear someone at the other end of the line put the phone down without leaving a message. VodaCon argued with me at the time that it was a reasonable price. ‘It was how the system worked, and couldn’t be changed,’ I was told, and that they had to charge for this service as otherwise they could not afford to provide it.
Yet suddenly, some time later, and with great fanfare marketing people began enthusiastically announcing that collecting messages was free.

Breaking free?

So why is it we don’t take our business elsewhere? The answer is that monopolistic and collusive practices in the cellular network industry (as with digital TV – as with car rental – as with Telkom – as with most things) make us sitting ducks. As one lawyer recently remarked, consumers might go to a ‘competitor’ across the field, but he will get shot at in the process as he crosses that field, and when he ends up on the other side he faces the same issues.
After many years of prepaid I tried a contract, largely because they had brought the prices down a lot and my phone was getting old and wearing out. They also said I could keep my number.
At the end of the contract, I was told, however, I could not have my number back — I’d so far had it about ten years. When I asked how come they can migrate the number from prepaid to contract but won’t the other way round they said, “The system can’t do that.” This immediately reminded me of the pay for downloading your messages ploy.
Of course, there was no point arguing with the ‘assistant’ about the fact the system, which is controlled by VodaCon, should be changed in favour of the consumer. So I decided to renew the contract, but not a Sony Ericsson this time as that phone had caused problems and had had to go in for repairs twice.
For my current contract I selected a Nokia 6280. Not a bad phone, although as you may guess it had to go in for repairs recently. I mean aren’t all these contract phones new when you get them? I really wonder.
Anyway when it came back all the settings had been changed reverting me to the VodaCon logos and dreadful tones. I wanted the sound fixed, not all the software altered. Why do people mess with your stuff?
I heard recently, however, that they are moving the goalposts once more, and you may be able to move contract numbers back to pre-paid. But it may be a vicious rumour, as I haven’t checked thoroughly enough to ensure it is true, or if there are certain ‘terms and conditions’ attached.
So, remember R1 049 is really R1 248. That’s new maths for you. By Nigel Benetton 

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:20.4 1st May, 2007
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