'When calling cards left me poorer'
"Phone Cards: £4 each or 3 for £10" caught my attention as I entered a music store as a student who always needs to call back home to talk with friends and relatives. I decided to get myself one. As I walked to the counter asking for my usual phone card, the shop assistant got into his act. He pitched a new calling card that could give me "extraordinary 60 minutes to India" instead of 25-35 minutes that the usual calling cards give. He even showed the company brochure that made the high claim.
180 minutes to India for just £10 - that would be three hours of chatting away to glory! I started thinking of all the people I could call. When you have too many spare minutes left on the card, people you rather avoid also get added to the calling list. This is the modus operandi of these phone card sellers: Give you an unbelievable number of minutes to tempt you to call more people and hence, buy more cards.
When I looked into my purse all I could find was a fiver and so I could buy only one calling card. After following the calling card ritual, I sat there waiting for the familiar telephone ring on the other end, but nothing happened. I dialled again but still got a blank. I dialled the customer service but even that didn't work and untill next day the situation remained the same. The silence was frightening - simply because it was worth £4!
A friend of mine said: "If that is any consolation to you, it happened to me, too." Another added her name to the list. Soon I found the list growing. It was nice to know that I wasn't the only one duped, but it was not nice to know that it was all a scam!
The pre-paid international calling card industry first took off in 1995. Since then it has been deeply plagued by a reputation for scams. It is, however, a booming industry. In Britain more than 10 million phone cards are sold each month. The annual sale tops the £500 million mark.
The cards are predominantly used by the ethnic migrants, international students and tourists looking for cheap ways to call up home. This practice accelerates especially if they have no access to credit and alternative ways to make a call. In the UK, about six million adults have no bank account and 10 million don't have credit cards. Pre-paid calling cards are also preferred as there are no contracts, no bills and you can call from just about any phone and anywhere.
CEO of Alpha Telecom, Giles Redpath said: "The cost of calling India has dropped a lot. As people perceive it to be cheaper, they talk longer and this actually costs them more."
Alpha Telecom sells over a million phone cards every month and can afford to even do extensive advertising on television, too. There are hundreds of small time players in the field causing stiff competition in the market. This fierce competition has lead for a £5 pre-paid card to be sold for just £4 or "3 for £10" promotions. This way, the highly attractive pre-paid calling cards that offer extremely cheap rates usually end up costing the customer more.
The consumer complaints highlight that toll-free customer service number is often out of order; the PIN number does not work; the connection makes you feel like you are talking from another galaxy and then of course there are a million hidden costs.
When you try to buy through Internet or postal order, you might as well brace yourself if the mail never reaches you. Some companies that take payment (over the Internet or phone) before delivery and promise to send it to you in the post - never do! In fact, often some companies go out of business even before you have punched a number. Then you are left with nothing but plastic!
There are trading tricks, too. All companies in the market subscribe to a practice known as roundage. So if you go a second over a minute, you lose one or sometimes two minutes. Premature cutting off is another problem. Often you are disconnected a minute or two before the said time and you can't dial as the prompt will tell you that you don't have sufficient funds to make the connection.
There are different rates for different time of the day. Mobiles incur an additional charge and some cards even have an expiry date of two to four weeks. Sometimes the operators have no space to fit the calls and the consumers are left with an engaged tone and expiry deadlines.
Also sometimes the number of minutes advertised on the posters is also less than what you actually get on the card. Recently, two companies were found guilty of overcharging customers. The calculations goes as this - If a phone card says that it will give you 30 minutes to India and gives you only 25, the company concerned will add 16 per cent to your profit margin. Most companies get away with it easily, but how many of us actually time our minutes?
Now, Trading Standards have secured convictions against some operators. London Borough of Harrow Trading Standards charged one company, Avalon London for advertising misleading prices in 2000 and again in 2002. Between the two cases, Harrow magistrates' court fined the company £21,500.
Next time you have a problem with your calling card and are unable to get through to customer service, call the trading standards in your borough and file your grievance. Maybe consumer consciousness will curb this relentlessly ongoing fraud in the international prepaid calling card business. It is time for consumers to take a stand!
(Ruhi Khan has studied at City University, London)