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Cheap International Calls Aren’t Always What They Seem
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Millions of people around the world use international calling cards every day to phone abroad. Most decisions regarding which card they’ll use are heavily dependent on price.
The industry has taken note of their customer’s tendency to go after the cheapest international calls, which has led to a common practice of creating an emphasized focus on low rates. This distraction tactic has left purchasers vulnerable to deceit in the form ofhiding substantial charges in small print within the terms and conditions.
Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, has already launched two massive investigations looking into improper conduct in the international calling card industry in the last decade.
Ofcom created a set of general conditions that require companies to provide clear and current information about tariffs and pricing. The conditions also clearly state that no company can bill for any charges it cannot explain.
If the regulator finds that any business is breaking any of these conditions, it will impose a fine of up to 10 percent of the company’s turnover. This minor slap-on-the-wrist has made has made the fraudulent practice of providing deceptively cheap international calls all too common in a particularly lucrative market.
In 2004, Ofcom concluded its investigation of three different card companies, all of which were found to have had discrepancies between the charges that were advertised and those that were billed. The additional costs passed onto the consumer were in the form of connection and handling charges—neither was made clear to the consumer.
During the same time period, the European Calling Card Services Association launched its own investigation into the entire market. It that foundalmost half of all cheap rate international calling cards sold in the UK contained "fraudulent elements, such as premature expiration," according to an article from The Independent.
Then, again in 2010, both Ofcom and Consumer Direct, the government-funded advice service, received multiple complaints about the pre-paid phone card company Lycatel.
Lycatel is a major player in the international calling card market, providing what they pitch as cheap international calls across 16 countries under a variety of brand names including Habibi, Cobra and World Call.
The complaints mostly surrounded the issue of unexplained or hidden charges and numerous instances of receiving fewer call minutes than were purchased.
Lycatel has since agreed to implement changes to their advertising that would make all their charges clearer to the customer.
There are, however, still some established companies that have maintained a clean slate through their tenure.
simplecall, a London-based international calling service, has been in the market for seven years and has never been investigated by Ofcom or any other regulatory agency. The company emphasizes transparency in its billing practices by prominently posting all its detailed rates on its website and by providing its customers with easy access to their online call history.The UK Border Agency Home Office even recognizes SimpleCall’s call records as lawful proof of correspondence when applying for a visa.
But finding international calling services with a history of clean practices and legitimacy that extends beyond their own industry are few and far in between. With more than 150 million pre-paid calling cards sold in 2010 alone-- and the customer’s continued focus on finding the cheapest international calls—it seems there will always be temptation for new or established businesses to push the envelope in terms of regulations.
Despite the vigilant and consistent investigations launched by regulators, there are many companies in the market that are dedicated to finding a way around it. The onus, then, will rest with the consumer to research and examine each business’ practices and past as a primary means of protecting themselves.
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