Consumers pay hidden costs in 'free' mobile phone offers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2009, 12:00am

Text messages are so quick and easy to send and read that most people do not think twice about using them - but they can carry a sting in their tail.

Ask the man who was hit with a HK$10,000 bill after signing up for a 'free' friend-seeking service.

Or the one who registered his phone number for a 'free' lucky draw but who ended up with a HK$70 bill for text messages sent to him.

These examples were cited by the Consumer Council as it warned about the traps of services that can produce rude shocks when the phone bill arrives. Ambrose Ho, head of the council's publicity and community relations committee, said: 'People may have authorised the receiving of paid messages without realising it.'

Short messaging services fall under the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Ordinance, introduced in 2007 to crack down on junk calls and messages. But the Office of the Telecommunications Authority - the regulator - said the complaints mentioned by the Consumer Council would have to be considered case by case.

One of the traps is an offer of services such as personality tests, IQ tests, friend matching and ring tones advertised as free on websites. But many who sign up do not notice conditions that state they will be sent costly text messages.

Whether the recipients reply to or ignore the messages, they can be charged for them, the council says.

In the first 11 months of this year, the watchdog received 470 complaints. One came from a man who signed up for a friend-finding service 'free of charge'. He used the service frequently, running up a HK$10,000 bill.

This is an edited version of an article published in the SCMP on December 16, 2009