Guidelines on way to tackle SMS charges

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

The government has begun drafting a code of practice for mobile network operators to safeguard people from misleading pay text messages that can hit them hard in the pocket.

Marion Lai Chan Chi-kuen, director-general of telecommunications, met representatives of five mobile network operators yesterday to start preparing guidelines that are expected to be ready in about a month.

The action comes after the Consumer Council said it had received 470 complaints about charges for short messages in the first 11 months this year. In one case a man had to pay HK$8,000 after signing up for a 'free' friend-seeking service.

Mobile network operators share about 70 per cent of profits from short messaging while content providers get the rest, the regulator says.

A four-point code will include a requirement that information providers use wording that stands out and clearly separates pay messages from free messages. They should also make the fee mechanism clear to users, showing how much is to be charged for each paid message and provide a clear and simple way for cancelling pay text services.

Any disputes should not affect other mobile services of the users.

'We will try to pitch it at a voluntary level first,' Lai said. 'The details need to be discussed with the mobile operators. But we believe with a code of practice there will be standard provision with regard to how the pricing, methodology and pricing information can be made uniform.'

The meeting followed comments by Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan that improper tactics to tempt people into paying for service messages were 'unacceptable, intolerable, need to be dealt with seriously and stopped as soon as possible'.

PCCW, 3 and CSL (One 2 Free) said they were working closely with Ofta, the telecoms watchdog. CSL and PCCW said they provided a network for communication between content providers and customers. But none of the operators responded to an inquiry about whether they had reached a profit-sharing agreement with content providers.

A CSL spokesman said: 'Mobile operators are merely the billing agent for these services and should not be singled out because they are a bigger target than the content providers and because of a lack of general consumer protection law in Hong Kong.'

In a radio phone-in show, a Peoples customer said he received a lawyer's letter demanding he pay HK$2,000 for such messages. He was charged HK$50 a message and the operator stopped his mobile service when he failed to settle the bill.

A woman caller said her child received a 'love letter' message last year and since then had been charged HK$28 a week for various text messages. 'My child has sent a reply 'Please don't send me this message. It's very annoying'. But [Peoples] said it's the wrong code, it's not the way [to cancel the service].'

She complained to Ofta but was told the company responsible for the message, Interchan, was a content provider, which falls outside the office's regulatory scope. After accusing Peoples of collaborating with Interchan she received a full refund.

Interchan service hotline officer Tom Ma said to cancel the service users should reply to text messages sent to them and key in certain designated English letters as instructed.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the Unconscionable Contract Ordinance could be applied to in the event of a lawsuit. 'For example, children might register to play games without knowing they have to pay. So, the case is arguable and this can be used in favour of the defence.'

Answering back

How to stop unwanted SMS

Contact telecoms firm to stop service. Ask for details about who is messaging you and tell them to stop

If information provider is an overseas firm, seek help from the Consumer Council

Do not open SMS with strange titles - delete them at once - and do not download anything from related links

In disputes with telecoms firm, one defence is to refer to the Unconscionable Contract Ordinance. Relevant factors here are:

Relative strengths of bargaining positions of two parties

If consumer had to comply with conditions that were not reasonable to protect other party's interests

Whether consumer understood documents relating to service

Whether undue influence or pressure was exerted on consumer

Whether consumer could have got same services from another party