Telephone firms spared convictions for over-charging after donating €40k to charity

Telephone firms spared convictions for over-charging after donating €40k to charity

Telecommunication companies Virgin Media Ireland and Meteor Mobile have avoided criminal convictions for over-charging customers.

Both Virgin Media Ireland and Meteor Mobile had been ordered in December by Judge John O'Neill at Dublin District Court to each pay a €20,000 to four charities and good causes.

Today he was furnished with receipts showing the donations had been made and on finalising the case he struck out the charges.

After hearing evidence of a catalogue of errors which saw customers ripped off by both firms, Judge O'Neill said he could understand the frustration they felt when complaints were not resolved despite their repeated efforts.

Judge O'Neill noted they had no prior convictions and have refunded the 18 complainants. He had said it would be better for the charities to benefit rather than imposing convictions and fines. The money was donated to : Pieta House, the Simon Community, the Merchant Quay Project and Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin in Dublin.

At an earlier stage, prosecution counsel Christian Keeling had said the aggravating factors were the phone companies' failures to deal with customer complaints in a timely and courteous manner.

Following an investigation by industry watchdog Comreg, Virgin Media Ireland and Meteor Mobile pleaded guilty at Dublin District Court to charges under Section 45 of the Communications Act. Virgin Media's seven charges were “legacy” issues as a result of taking over the UPC network, Judge O'Neill was told.

The court heard customers were over-charged after getting special offers for TV, phone and internet packages and the issue was only resolved after they became frustrated and contacted Comreg.

The court heard a Meteor customer was threatened with legal action and a debt collection company, and another where a man was charged more than €1,000 after he cancelled his account while a woman was expected to pay €400 for calls made by a person who stole her phone.

Comreg compliance officers Miriam Kilraine and Melanie O'Beirne gave evidence at the hearing.

Ms Kilraine told the court that in January last year a customer was offered a €45 per month package, a 50% reduction, for six months, with unlimited calls. However in February the customer received an incorrect bill.

The next complainant had been dealing with the company on behalf of her elderly mother who received a broadband and unlimited calls offer for the first six months at €75 per month. However she was over-charged various sums from for the next two months, with one invoice for €117 and another for €93.

The next complainant, a mother-of-four, had signed up with UPC, now owned by Virgin Media Ireland, for a 50% reduced price package for the first six months, but the discount was not reflected in the following two months billing, including one in which she ended up paying almost twice the agreed amount.

She found the experience of dealing with their customer services “infuriating”.

Ms Kilraine said the next complainant had signed up in October last year to a €95 per month deal but the bills for the next three months were €139, €100 and €107.

A customer signed up in November 2014 for a Virgin €25 per month for the first six months deal and €60 a month thereafter. However, their first bill was for €55 and they complained to the company but felt they were not believed about having been given the special offer.

Another case related to a customer who had cancelled their account after they moved abroad in June last year but who had money debited from his bank account for the next four months.

Customer Owen Finn had told the court that in January last year he had been given a €73 a month for the first four months package after which the price would rise to €117, for phone, broadband and television services.

However, in February he paid €106 and he later received another bill for €151 and was told by a company representative that this was caused by a “glitch”. He told the court he had to make several calls to their customer service agents and like the other complainants had to bring it to the attention of Comreg.

Aisling Kelly BL, for Virgin Media Ireland, had said that company apologised. The issues were a legacy offences of UPC which Virgin had taken over. The issues were a result of unfortunate human error, she said, adding that billing assistance had been mishandled by a telesales company no longer used by Virgin.

Comreg analyst Melanie O'Beirne investigated the 11 complaints against Meteor. She said one man was wrongfully threatened with legal actions and a debt collection company for €1,445. There was a “system error” after he had thought he had cancelled his account.

Another Meteor customer signed up via the company's web-chat service for a plan worth €59 a month in February but €70 was debited from her bank account twice, in March and April. “They had no record of the live web-chat when they gave the offer,” the court heard.

A customer got an upgrade at the Meteor store on Grafton St in Dublin and ended up getting “charged for two different numbers and two different plans notwithstanding that she only had one phone”. In that three-month period she was over-charged €97.

Another dissatisfied customer told Comreg she “tried everything” but she said “I'm getting nowhere”. She changed her plan in December 2014 and the first two bills were higher than expected; she was over-charged €43 and her efforts to get refunded were unsuccessful until the telecoms watchdog agency got involved.

Judge O'Neill heard a customer opted for a 24-month contract with a 50% discount in August 2014 but the company refused to honour the agreement.

In September last year a customer in Galway got a €9.99 a month package but was charged €20 a month. She ended up paying an extra €60.

A man who changed his mind about continuing with mobile broadband and cancelled the account in June last year still got charged €9.99 a month until January 2015.

Ms O'Beirne said the eighth complainant, a 73-year-old man, told Comreg he was disgusted by his treatment by Meteor. The pensioner had asked in January to cancel his account but was told by a customer service agent that he would have to wait until November. Shortly after that his son advised him that this was not correct, and the man was later told by the company he would have to cancel via email.

Judge O'Neill noted that the man would have ended up paying until November if he had heeded what he had been initially told by the company employee.

A woman had her phone stolen in March and contacted Meteor who assured her that her account had been suspended. However, the company attempted to bill her for €400 of calls made after the phone was stolen, and they took part of her deposit to pay off part of the bill.

The tenth complainant was over-charged €93 on four invoices issued after he had been assured his account had been cancelled.

Another mobile broadband user was over-charged €74 despite returning a “dongle” and closing his account.

Joe Jeffers BL, for Meteor, had said the company knew this was unacceptable. He said the case was taken seriously by the company.

He had asked the court to note Meteor had almost one million customers and the incidents outlined were mostly the result of human error. They have put in place new measures including “a single management complaint process” where customers won't have to be asked to rehash their story every time they speak to a representative of the company, he said.

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