CSL says no to transparency in billing at hearing of Small Claims Tribunal

Mobile phone operator refuses to agree to give more information about its tariffs, as requested by a man who is suing it over a billing dispute

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 4:13am

Mobile telephone operator CSL refused to agree to provide billing transparency to one of its customers during a hearing at the Small Claims Tribunal yesterday.

"We never overcharge customers," the company representative told the court, but said the rates quoted on its website could sometimes lag behind changes to roaming tariffs.

In what is believed to be the first legal action over a lack of transparency in a telecom's fees, CSL customer Ben Sargent is seeking to recover HK$345 for a 43-minute call he made to what he says is a toll-free British number, and HK$2,540 in roaming charges for calls during a trip to Italy and Dubai that he said were higher than CSL's published rates.

Sargent argues he should not have to pay extra charges for the call because the British toll-free number was not a "premium" number, as CSL claims.

In July, after the first hearing, CSL's acting CEO Han Kotterman e-mailed Sargent to say he was "disappointed with the way that issues have been handled on our side". Sargent says Paul Hodges, CSL's executive vice-president of corporate, wholesale and international services, then told him that the billing discrepancies were due to an "error in the system".

But both CSL executives have since terminated contact with Sargent, and company representatives have refused to admit to billing errors in court.

In the third hearing yesterday, Sargent reduced his claim to HK$49.94 and a refund of the toll-free charge of HK$352.60, to focus on the crux of the complaint.

In his amended claim letter, he added a request that "HKCSL Ltd agree to undertake billing and charging transparency for all charges in future".

The CSL representative did not offer Sargent any refund in court and refused to agree to a commitment to transparency. Sargent had rejected CSL's previous settlement offers, which ranged from HK$23.67 last December to HK$1,100 in August.

"It's not about the money," he said. "I want them to commit to charging consumers only their published rates, to establish a precedent to protect consumers. If I drop the case, they can continue to charge whatever amounts they want."

He said his next step was to file a complaint with the Office of the Communications Authority over what he called CSL's breach of its licence agreement.

According to section 7.1 of the Telecommunications Ordinance, "The licensee shall publish and charge no more than the tariffs for the service operated under this licence."

"They refused to admit to overcharging me, probably because they don't want more customers to file similar claims. That could really cut into their profits," Sargent said.

"CSL continues to maintain it has correctly adhered to all the conditions of the contract in this case," a CSL representative said.

CSL has some of the highest roaming rates in Hong Kong, which is generally home to some of the highest such rates in the world.

The Consumer Council has received more than 5,000 complaints about the city's mobile-phone companies in the past two years.