TALK is not cheap, at least not for City Telecom (Hong Kong) customers who were charged three times more than they expected. But talk seems to be cheap at the Government's telecommunications watchdog, which has complained but done little else on behalf of City Telecom customers seeking a reduction in their bills. At the end of October, the company sent its 350,000 customers a leaflet appearing to announce that during November calls to Canada and the United States would be charged at 99 cents a minute and calls to Australia and Britain at $1.99 a minute - the lowest rates on the market. But when statements arrived in December, calls to North America cost $2.99, to Australia $6.10, and to Britain $6.60. 'We didn't set out to make them think the rate would be 99 cents a minute,' a company spokesman said. 'It's just the design [of the leaflet].' As a 'goodwill' gesture, the company is offering some relief on bills, but not at the rates offered in the flyer. The Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta), the first line of defence for callers who feel ripped off, appears to be all talk in response. Ofta informed City Telecom that it had violated the code of practice on advertising. But once the watchdog sank its teeth into the problem, the telecom provider stopped reducing complainers' bills. 'Adjusting these customers' bills conveys a wrong message to other customers,' a company spokesman said. Where does that leave those who stood up for their rights and are now out of pocket? Facing a lonely battle in small-claims court, basically. 'We have positioned ourselves as a department safeguarding consumer interest,' said Au Man-ho, Ofta's senior assistant director. '[But] I don't think we have the power to demand operators give compensation. That is a matter to be sorted out between the operators and the customer.' So what, exactly, does the organisation do in its role as guardian of consumers' rights? 'At least we can make sure the company won't do this again,' Mr Au said. Hongkong Telecom official Ursula Yeung Siu-lan said the end of the company's exclusive international franchise next year would bring more uncertainty to the market. Hongkong Telecom's own record is not squeaky clean. In late 1996, it had to apologise to thousands of customers, telling them that two weeks of 'sensational savings' on international calls would, in fact, be charged at full price. The company had promised customers who subscribed during an advertising campaign the previous month that they would receive a discount of up to 50 per cent on overseas calls made in December. Its slogan 'the more you call, the more you save' was tempting ahead of Christmas. But Hongkong Telecom had failed to get Government approval for the cheap rates and had to delay their start to December 16. At the time, it defended its practice of running ads ahead of their time, arguing that the small print informed consumers that discounts were subject to Government approval. Ms Yeung said Hongkong Telecom had scrapped its advertise-first policy. 'We made a mistake, and we have learned our lesson,' she said. Hong Kong Telecommunications Users' Group chairman Simon Chan Yuk-keung warned consumers to shop carefully. 'It's just like going to a supermarket. They advertise some prices that are low, but other goods may be more expensive,' he said.