Beware Cell Phone “Scams’!

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

I don’t know about you, but as I have a cell phone contract which generally meets my monthly needs, I tend not to check each invoice which comes through from the provider. (in this case, MTN).  When the monthly charge does exceed the contract amount, it’s usually because I have spent more time on my phone than usual, and I accept it.

This month, however, was the fourth month this happened!  I knew something was wrong as I’ve definitely not used my phone that much at all in the past month.  So, I printed out the statement.  Lo and behold, there was this strange charge called “Content Charge” for about R186.  No other detail provided!  MTN then included this amount in my monthly debit order.

Anyway, I sent them an email querying it.  This was the reply I received:

Content Charge is a commercial SMS by a company with the intention of selling you a product or service. Once you subscribe or reply to any of these you get charged for the information you receive from them. The content providers charge us for the content you purchase and we pass the charges onto you. The registration thereof is completely voluntary. Any proof of subscription or refund is provided by the content provider directly to you.   Please note we have sent a request to unsubscribe you. Your unsubscribe has been logged as #5875742. You were subscribed to Intergrat. Please call 0841966960 to query a refund. (emphasis – mine.)

Apart from the fact that I neither subscribed nor replied, this wouldn’t have meant a great deal to me.  But, I decided to go to the nearest MTN store, where the very helpful staff nodded knowingly, and admitted that “lots of people get this!”

They told me that it happens in the following way:

  • You get an SMS about some service at R6 per day.  (which I remember receiving and deleting without responding to it.) The SMS states that if you don’t want it, you must reply by SMS with the word “STOP”.  If you don’t reply, the service kicks in as a subscription.
  • They then send MTN a bill for the subscription which you’ve “voluntarily agreed to” and MTN pays them.  (in my case, some firm called Intergrat – whoever they may be!)

The MTN staff at the store then very kindly checked through my phone to make sure I had no more unwanted “services’ on it, and proclaimed it ‘cleansed’!

I subsequently phoned the number MTN referred me to and requested a refund – which in my case is R792,00.  I was told that I would be sent ‘proof’ of my subscription; not that the amount would be refunded.  Interestingly enough,  I then received an email from them “offering” me a refund of the full amount, within 7 days, on provision of my banking details and that of MTN.   True to their word, the refund was paid into my bank account a few days ago!

I have let MTN know how I feel about this kind of thing:

  • I have never subscribed to any service other than my MTN contract.
  • I have no idea how this “service provider” got hold of my cell number in the first place.  The fact that they have a working relationship with MTN, by implication suggests that MTN gave them my details.  And I object to that!
  • I was told that in a case like this, I need to SMS the word “STOP” back to the provider’s number, otherwise the ‘subscription’ kicks in.  Like most people my age, with a little technical knowledge, I am very wary of anything that appears on my cell or my laptop asking me to either download or respond.  It is my habit to delete these things rather than to take a risk by downloading or replying.  I consider that a normal (and responsible, in this day and age of internet-based scams) response to unwanted advertising/direct selling of anything!
  • I do not believe MTN have the right to charge me for someone else’s ‘service’ and then pay this amount over to the ‘provider’ without my express permission to do so.  Imagine if someone sent me an SMS saying that a large order for Scotch whisky valued at R1000 will be sent to me, unless I reply “STOP”.  I then ignore the SMS, and MTN then simply deducts this amount from my bank account.  MTN has no knowledge of whether the goods/services have been provided, nor do they contact me about it!  I might get the whisky, (which would be way better than this mystery service which I’m supposed to be receiving), but, wow! What a way to sell your “products”.
  • MTN, I believe, have a duty to warn their clients of this kind of thing – which in my view is nothing but a form of extortion – in short, a massive scam!

I believe that my letter warning people about this kind of thing is necessary.  I can only imagine the number of people – perhaps less aware (and it passed me by for 3 months) than me – who don’t pick this up.  Multiply R6 a day times thousands of ‘subscribers’ – and, well – you do the maths.  What a way to make money!

So, be careful about ignoring pesky ‘adverts’ on your cell phone.  By not replying you’re ‘agreeing’ to accept their terms.