TRAI bans “auto starting” of value added services: brings relief to customers

In a huge relief to ordinary mobile customers suffering from unwanted “value added services,” the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has made a written request from the consumer mandatory for the starting of value added services.

Value added services (VAS) are those which are in addition to the normal SMS and voice calling facility.

Many consumers have been complaining to the TRAI as well as to the Government that operators simply start off such services without asking them. In some cases, such services are also started off by operators by “tricking” the consumer by urging them to press any key etc..

The move by the TRAI to make a written request from the consumer a must for the starting of any such service is likely to impact the revenue of many operators as well as several VAS companies.

It has come after repeated and futile attempts to bring the operators to good behaviour over the last 3 to 4 years. TRAI had, in the past, tried many directions and guidelines to try to convince operators not to indulge in such-anti consumer behaviour, but had been unsuccessful.

In India, VAS typically includes services such as news-headlines, GPRS, ring-back and caller tunes, astrological advice etc.. and are usually charged at around Rs 30-50 per month.

Many consumers are ‘trapped’ into such schemes after they press the wrong key when an automated call asking whether such a services should be started or not arrives on their cellphone. Many consumers are simply too confused or illiterate or impatient to hear what the recorded message is saying and end up pushing a button than starts the service.

Once started, such VAS facilities are notoriously difficult to get rid of. Endless calls and SMSes to the operators customer service often fails to put a stop to such “value adds.” The issue is particularly serious in rural areas where a single deduction of Rs 50 may account for nearly half of that customer’s calling budget for the month.

Officially, all operators deny that they start off such “value adds” without asking the customer’s permission or by tricking them.

“the service provider shall obtain confirmation from the consumer through consumer originated SMS or e-mail or FAX or in writing within twenty four hours of activation of the value added service and charge the consumer only if the confirmation is received from him for such value added service and shall discontinue such value added service if no confirmation is received from the consumer,” TRAI says in its new guidelines.

TRAI also noted that such “value added” services do not leave the customer even when the customer tries to get rid of it by not recharging his or her account. In such cases, TRAI points out, the value added services keep on coming and the mobile operator keeps on deducting money from the customer, resulting in a negative balance.

When the customer recharges the next time, the arrears caused by the value added services are deducted immediately.

“If there is insufficient balance in the account of a consumer at the time of renewal of subscription to a value added service, the service provider shall send a request, through SMS, to the consumer to indicate his consent for continuing such service by sending an SMS as “Yes” or “No” to a toll free number and if, in response to such request, the consumer indicates his explicit consent by conveying “Yes”, such value added service shall be renewed and such consumer shall be informed by the service provider through SMS that the charges for renewal of subscription of value added service shall be deducted from subsequent recharge,” TRAI noted.

In a separate move, the regulator suggest making ‘itemized’ billing facility available to all pre-paid customers and introducing a new colour coded system of recharge coupons. [click to read]