It is the largest retail penalty ever imposed by the communications regulator, ComReg.
Three’s behaviour came to light largely because customers could not access the helpline number they needed to call if they wanted to cancel their contracts before the changes took effect.
The proposed contract changes related to a price increase of up to €5 a month for Three’s 1.3m prepay and bill pay customers and changes to terms and conditions under “all you can eat data” ahead of the abolition of EU roaming charges.
Customers’ inability to contact the 1800 number supplied by Three led to a “significant volume of complaints” to ComReg.
“The nature of the complaints varied but the majority of complainants were unhappy that they were unable to gain access to the notified 1800 number,” ComReg said.
The 1800 number was issued to pay as you go and bill pay customers on March 3, along with notification their terms and conditions were to change from April 3.
ComReg paid a visit to Three’s head office in Dublin and subsequently issued it with notifications of non-compliance with certain communications regulations, namely: Failure to properly advise customers of the nature of the proposed contract changes, or to adequately facilitate their right to exit contracts without penalty, after being notified of the proposals.
ComReg also found Three had “failed to ensure that its conditions and procedures for contract termination did not act as a disincentive to consumers changing service provider” — essentially, that it was difficult for customers to switch.
Yesterday a spokesperson for the telecoms company said it had refunded anyone charged an early termination fee as a result of withdrawal from their contract on foot of the proposed changes.
The spokesperson also said up to €100,000 has been paid in refunds to date. She said Three had also re-notified customers of the contract changes that came into effect on April 3 and had identified and contacted customers who had been unable to contact the 1800 number and advised them of their right to withdraw without penalty.
The spokeswoman said 2% of their 1.3m prepay and bill pay customers had been affected by the issues raised by ComReg.
Three has also told ComReg that it will not, in future, apply an early termination fee or other penalty, if a customer exercises their right to cancel their contract within a month of proposed changes taking effect.
Going forward, customers will be able to notify Three of their cancellation request by phone, post, online chat, or by visiting a retail store and Three will “promptly confirm such cancellation requests using the same channel of communication”.
Three also said it would not engage in “save” activity, whereby efforts are made to retain the customer, without first seeking the customer’s blessing to have that conversation.