Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Locked in and ripped off

I have been restraining myself from writing about at least two of my consumer complaints in this column. However, recent developments have done little to appease me. Hence I will cloak the next few paragraphs as an attempt to warn other users to demand fairer treatment from these giants.

I subscribe to my mobile service provider, Globe Telecom, under a P995-a-month post-paid plan. The plan comes with so-called freebies, and I signed up for unlimited calls and text messages to numbers I most frequently contact. I have a modest Nokia unit with a QWERTY pad that is able to access the Internet anywhere it’s available.

In the middle of this year, our family decided to get a router, a one-time expense anyway, to maximize the benefits of our Internet connection (care of Bayantel) at home. After all, we have several devices in the house. Everybody will agree that the Web these days is no longer a luxury but a need – provided it's used responsibly. My job also demands that I be in the know about what’s happening in the country and outside.

Such sweet life, I often muttered to myself, while lounging in the living room or bedroom, checking my mail, uploading a photo or reading my favorite columns in international newspapers -- all from my phone. I have fallen asleep reading, many times. I was only too happy to pay my bills religiously. Some months I even paid Globe extra to cover the “pasa load” that my son occasionally asked from me.

In fact, I never bothered to look at my statement of account, which I had asked to be sent to me online. I knew I was a good customer. Not big, but good.

I should have known better.

All the time I thought I was surfing using the wifi connection in the house, I was also being charged by Globe. How is that possible, you ask, when every time I go online my phone asks me which connection I want to use – WLAN or Globe, and I naturally say the former? I had to find out the hard way, waking up one day to realize I could no longer send outgoing text messages or make calls. Baffled, I asked Globe and was informed that I had racked up a debt of P4,800, mostly in Internet charges. And I thought I was a good customer.

It turns out that the post-paid plans are configured in such a way that when the wifi connection becomes unstable, the mobile connection automatically takes over. Yes, even if you say otherwise. The customer service agent, both on the phone and in the Globe center I later on went to, told me that I should have adjusted the data settings in my phone. My failure to do that explains my accumulated debt.

Wonderful – so now it's my fault. It was the first time I have heard of the technical mumbo-jumbo. If I weren’t still locked in (I’m tied to the plan until October next year), I would have found another provider.

So now I am using my old prepaid number while discerning whether I should contribute to my own ripoff. I can of course settle it right away and get connected again, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Moral of the story to all post-paid subscribers who think they are using wifi: Check your data settings. Scrutinize your statements of account to the last centavo and ask questions at the earliest possible instance. Nobody wants this kind of surprise.

**

These telecom companies! They act like taxi drivers in December – smug and arrogant just because they know you need them. Unfortunately, with the way of life we have become used to, we need them all year round.

Bayantel, which is what we are using now, was not our first Internet provider at home. We first had Wi-tribe, which made a big to-do when it first broke into the market. The problem with the Wi-tribe modem was that it was signal-dependent. It had to be placed at a certain angle near the window on the second floor. Then came typhoon Basyang in July of last year – and our connection turned from precarious to bad. At best it was intermittent. You also had to plan your usage so that you don’t exceed your limits and go even slower.

The kids and I bore this for the next six months or so, and we paid our bills anyway, because we were locked in for a year (which means until July 2011). Internet at home was really bad in those days. I remember posting an entry about how bad Wi-tribe was in my blog – yes, I know how to rant -- six times, and my readers thought I did it on purpose because I was that upset. But no, I was not upset six times over. It was just bad connection, and I did not think I was publishing the entry so I kept posting again and again.

Finally, sometime in the third week of January, we could not get online at any time at all. We called the hotline, as we have for so many times, for assistance, asking Wi-tribe to send technicians. We were told our request was being noted and we could expect their IT people on February 8. That long? That was the last straw. Then and there, I decided to terminate the services. I was given a transaction reference number (emailed so many days afterwards) for my request. After all, the premise of staying locked in was that the service was ok. Nobody should be faulted for wanting out when the service sucks, and when it comes as a last resort. A few weeks hence, and only then did Wi-tribe people pick up the modem. I remember telling them that even their pick-up was massively late. I switched to Bayantel the following month.

If you think that's the story, think again. Just last week I started getting calls and text messages from collection agents, name dropping a law firm, telling me to pay Wi-tribe. What gall, right?

I am sure whoever invented the idea of lock-in periods have good reason to do so. It’s protection for companies against unscrupulous consumers who use their services, avail of the perks and just stop paying altogether.

But the humble, good customers who expect good service and fair treatment must be protected as well. What good is a lock-in period if it shackles you into staying with a provider, bearing with its bad or usurious practices, paying hard-earned money while getting next to nothing in return? And then they text or call you as if you were the scammer.

I will be happy to know that I am a most unfortunate exception to all these. That Globe is forthright with how it charges its customers and that Wi-tribe provides good service and does not harass former subscribers who left it through no fault of their own. But it does not look like it at all.

Life’s already difficult. Our challenges are already big. Let us not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of in small, mundane ways.

adellechua@gmail.com

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