Digital robbery


By Michael Tan – Will Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile be able to finally crack down on the telecoms or mobile phone service providers? At 85, the senator is still going strong with his fiery tirades, and the other day he zeroed in on the telecoms and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

The fiery senator didn’t mince words, describing the telecoms’ gimmicks as “estafa,” “cheating,” “fraud.” I thought of “highway robbery,” except that we’re being victimized on a digital highway, so it’s digital robbery.

Two issues in particular irked the senator. First, he asked how cell phone loads are handled, citing his own experience that had gotten him so irritated. He had loaded P600 the previous morning, and found in the afternoon that though he had not used the phone, the balance dropped to P519. The next morning it was down to P445.

Second, the senator lashed out at the phone companies sending him messages he didn’t want, especially because he felt he was being charged for those messages.

For years now Filipinos have suffered, usually silently, from the telecom companies’ lack of regulation. In fairness to the NTC, which should be monitoring these companies, this is a global problem. European consumers, for example, had to put up with outrageously high roaming charges whenever they went to another country within the continent. Consumers complained and complained, but it was only last year that the European Commission was able to get the companies to bring down costs.

Cell phones are fairly recent additions to communications technologies so many governments are still learning how to deal with all kinds of new situations, e.g., “sexting” or the sharing of sexually explicit photographs and videos through the phones.

But our NTC might want to learn from other countries’ experiences. A good place to start would be looking at policies about loads on prepaid cards. As far as I know, these loads do expire in all countries, the length of validity depending on the amount deposited. But I think the validity period in the Philippines is much too short, with a maximum of four months, at prices which very few people are willing to pay. Reflecting our economic situation, many Filipinos depend on e-loads which last only a few days. Contrast those short validity periods with those in China, for example, where loads can last as long as a year.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

One important service we lack here is regular notification about your loads. If we don’t ask—by calling or texting—the telecoms won’t tell you what your balance is. In many countries, the telecom companies notify you regularly without your having to call or text. They do this when your load is dropping to very low levels, or when it is about to expire.

Last year, on a trip to Thailand, I signed up for “virtual SIM card” from AIS, one of their telecom providers where they create a second card on your phone with a local number, which you can then charge with e-loads. It is an amazing system that works on all phones, even those without a dual SIM function. With each incoming phone call, you can tell if it is being made to your Philippine SIM or Thai SIM.

A great service but what was even more amazing was how they handled loads. After I got back to the Philippines, the virtual SIM number disappeared from my phone, but after a few weeks, I was surprised to get a text message informing me that the remaining load in my Thai virtual SIM was about to expire. The warning messages came three and two days before the expiration. On the day of expiration, there was a last friendly invitation to reload, and to say thank you for using AIS.

Ethical practice makes for good business. Every time I’m in Thailand, I ring up AIS to get their free virtual card. If I end up with unused loads, I don’t feel too bad.

In the Philippines, consumers wake up one day to find they’ve lost their loads, sometimes amounting to P100 or P200. It leaves the consumer feeling that he has gotten a raw deal so he just keeps postponing a reload, or even throws away the SIM card.

The second issue Enrile brought up was about unsolicited messages, presumably as part of marketing campaigns, of which there are several types, each needing a different kind of remedial measure.

First, there are outright scams, usually saying you’ve won a prize from a group and telling you to call so you can get your prize. Or text messages supposedly from young girls needing money for college and willing to do anything to get the money. I ignore these texts, but wonder at times, in dismay, if perhaps there are still gullible (and sex-driven) people who fall for such scams.

I don’t think the NTC can do anything about this, except to coordinate with the police to offer a hotline where you can report such numbers. I’m sure though the con artists change their numbers too quickly to be caught.

The NTC can and should act, maybe with the Department of Trade and Industry, on another kind of unwanted texts: unsolicited business offers, mainly from banks offering “low-interest” loans. Have you ever wondered how your phone number got into the hands of these cell phone marketers? I inquired once with my bank, a large international one, and found out they had given out my number to other companies for “promotional affairs.” Check with your banks, and credit card providers and request them to respect the confidentiality of phone numbers.

The messages Enrile was complaining about probably came from the telecom itself. Many readers have been victimized here, with the telecoms asking if you want to get a ringtone a day, or celebrity news (read gossip). They never run out of gimmicks, including outright deceptive instructions on handling the offers. I’ll never forget a note (the father of all scams, I thought) with this instruction: To stop getting these messages, press Y; to continue getting these offers, press N. Diabolical, I thought, knowing how an angry person would press N as a way of saying No, No, No and actually ending up saying “Yes, I want to subscribe, and charge me for daily updates on Hayden and Katrina.”

I haven’t even started about telecoms offering those wireless services, a SIM card that works as a landline. I’ve run through several companies and they’re generally unreliable. Worse, my father got into a two-year locked-in contract from which he couldn’t get out, even with the almost non-existent connections.

Be careful too with those USB sticks offering Internet connections. Always read the fine print on how you are going to be charged, and how fast the connection really is.

It’s a digital jungle out there.

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