Ofta 'lets off' four big telecoms firms for misleading customers
The telecoms watchdog has been accused of 'letting off' four operators by not fining them for misleading or deceptive sales behaviour.
Instead, they have been ordered to contribute $2.3 million to a consumer awareness programme.
The Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) has also set nine guidelines for the companies on sales and customer service, but they are not legally binding.
Legislators said financial penalties should have been imposed.
Ofta said it received 152 complaints about sales practices of Hutchison Global Communications (42), i-Cable WebServe (65), New World Telecommunications (23) and Wharf T&T (22) between May 2003 and September last year.
It said the companies were alleged to have breached section 7M of the Telecommunications Ordinance, which prohibits misleading or deceptive sales behaviour.
Ofta director-general Au Man-ho said the complaints were usually about one-on-one sales situations, such as at street booths or in door-to-door campaigns.
'The sales people were alleged to have provided misleading information to lure the consumers to sign up,' Mr Au said. 'If the consumers knew the whole truth, they might not have subscribed.'
Mr Au said Ofta could have fined the companies if they were found to have violated section 7M, but they were asked to contribute $2.3 million to an awareness programme instead. He refused to disclose how much each paid.
Democrat Fred Li Wah-ming said he was disappointed by Ofta's decision. 'This is too loose. There should be at least some kind of penalty, not just ask them to put some money together,' he said. 'It sends out a bad message to consumers, making them think it's useless to make complaints and the government is always on the companies' side.'
Legislator Andrew Cheng Kar-foo welcomed the awareness plan but said Ofta should have issued penalties if there was proof the operators were making mistakes that led to consumers' losses.
Mr Au insisted his office had done its job. 'Just imposing a financial penalty would not be good enough,' he said. 'We think it's more positive for us to co-operate with the companies and improve the industry's standard as a whole.
'If the companies make the same mistakes ... we might impose a heavier penalty.'
New World Telecommunications, Wharf T&T and i-Cable said they supported the guidelines.
Telecoms accounted for the largest block of complaints to the Consumer Council last year.