"Vodacom rejects, in the strongest possible terms, the inference that it seeks to share in the spoils of fraudulent activity on its network,” CEO Shameel Joosub told Noseweek shortly before we went to press. He was responding to questions related to widespread complaints by Vodacom customers who are victims of fraudulent “content provider” deductions from their airtime.
“We have a zero-tolerance approach and take a hard line in the event that a third party contravenes any agreement they may have with Vodacom or the Wireless Application Service Providers Association (WASPA’s) code of conduct,” Joosub assured Noseweek.
|Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub|
“We have suspended and terminated the services of WASPs in the past and will continue to investigate reported transgressions and then ensure we take appropriate action.
“We also ensure that affected customers are fully refunded on first contact with Customer Care; in fact we pass the large majority of credits to customers. Standard practice is to refund the customer first and then investigate the query/allegation later.
“We continuously enhance our systems to eliminate fraudulent activity. For example, we make regular improvements to our double opt-in solution to make it clear to customers what it is they are subscribing to, the subscription term and the amount they will pay.”
That, Dear Reader, is how things should be; unfortunately it does not tally with the experience of the thousands of Vodacom clients who discover they have been the victims of such frauds – without any attempt having been made by Vodacom to inform them of the deal, let alone obtain their consent to it. Nor does it tally with the often-shabby, evasive treatment they get from Vodacom’s agents or the Customer Care line when they call to object or ask for an explanation.
Hundreds of customers have com-plained to Noseweek – through Hello Peter and other consumer and social media sites – and engaged with Noseweek on social media platforms when the subject was raised.
It is clear from available evidence that most victims are unaware that they have been – or are still being – scammed, having had airtime effectively stolen from their accounts with the collaboration of Vodacom.
In a separate response, the chairman of the Vodacom board’s ethics committee, Saki Macozoma, told Noseweek: “I take the issues you raise seriously enough to copy my response to both the chairman and the CEO.
“I can assure you that Vodacom does not allow any criminal activities to take place on our network. Across the Vodacom and Vodafone Groups there are clear policies and vigorous defences against unscrupulous elements trying to fleece our customers.
“In the Social and Ethics Committee we pay particular attention to any practice that has the effect of defrauding or treating customers unfairly.
[What of the practice of content providers being allowed by Vodacom to put through charges on Vodacom customers’ accounts without their knowledge, let alone consent? – Ed.]
“The function of the Committee is to ensure that adequate policies and programs are in place. An important element of this is that our customers are educated constantly to be vigilant and not expose themselves to scammers.
[Noseweek has noted that it is common practice for Vodacom’s Customer Care to first respond to complaints of “content provider” fraud by suggesting that the customer has been negligent and is therefore responsible for the charge. – Ed.]
“With specific reference to third party content providers, I am not able to comment on the details without alerting Management to the cases that you cite and getting their response. [Such a widespread, persistent and ongoing complaint, and you are unable to comment? You still do not know about it?– Ed.]
“I can say categorically though that there is no way that Vodacom would allow or collude with such content providers to scam our customers. If there are any loopholes in our systems that allow that – and I am not aware of any – I can assure you that they will be closed with immediate effect.”
[That would be wonderful. Noseweek looks forward to hearing how and when you intend to close this very profitable (to Vodacom) “loophole”.]
Macozoma concluded his statement with the real eye-opener:
“Finally let me also assure you that the Social and Ethics Committee gets a quarterly report on customer complaints and they are analysed for us so we are able to understand them, how they are handled and what the trends are. At no stage have the complaints that you highlight surfaced to indicate a material trend.”
• The world is – once again – on fire about Vodacom’s “content provider” or WASP frauds (Noseweek ran a cover story on the subject back in 2009), but Vodacom management has still not briefed the company’s ethics committee on the problem? Seriously?
Maybe the real misunderstanding, then, is that management sees it as a profit opportunity, not a problem to be dealt with by the ethics committee.
Read the report that follows. Then you be the judge. – Editor.
Cell phone provider picked my pocket By William Douglas
I have three cell phone contracts with Vodacom through their dealer Chatz Connect. The contracts started in March 2016 and September 2016. Throughout the contract period my billing balances varied only slightly from month to month and did not raise any suspicions.
|Vodacom ethics committee chairman Saki Macozoma|
But my billing account suddenly increased by R322.96 for September 2017; and by R407.84 for October 2017. I was told it was due to “content services” to which I am subscribed, wittingly or unwittingly. The assistant explained: “Content Services is what the technological boffins call WASPs (Wireless Application Service Providers). Your account can suddenly receive extra charges in rand value (not charges for data or airtime or sms messages) for these WASP services that, unknown to you, subscribe you to their sites without you even having to give them authorisation. For instance, you would Google ‘movie times’ at a cinema and these services would hack your IP address from Google and then subscribe you unknowingly to their site and charge you for this unwanted service. Usually a Pop Up would appear on your screen and even if you click, ‘Do not accept’ or ‘Decline’, you would still be subscribed.”
The assistant also told me – aparently believing this nonsense herself – that there is no way that Vodacom can stop this as “most of these sites are situated in foreign countries.”
By law, Vodacom cannot add charges to my account on behalf of a third party, when I have not given Vodacom permission in writing to do so. I do not have a contract with that third party either. It simply means there are two fraudsters involved in misappropriating my money, not just one, and they are probably acting in concert, since Vodacom is, after more than a decade of experience and complaints, way better informed on how these frauds take place than any of its customers can possibily be. And it gets to pocket a share of the loot.
Vodacom has taken my money and paid it to a third party without having seen any evidence of a valid contract entitling the third party to claim payment from me, let alone claim it from Vodacom which has no authority to act on my behalf.
Neither did Vodacom bother to inform me – by way of a proper account – that specified: to whom they had paid my money, for what service, when it was supplied and on what authority they had paid for it with my money (after taking a handsome cut for themselves).
Taking my money without my knowledge or consent is theft. And they hid it amongst the myriad other charges on my bill (as an anonymous “content service” item). Pretending ignorance and innocence when I question it, is both fraud and an attempt to defeat the ends of justice.
I would love to see the invoices rendered to Vodacom at the end of each month by the various WASPs and fee-aggregators that it has chosen to host for its own profit for more than a decade – at huge expense to its clients.
I have signed for a specific package with Vodacom, one that provides for the supply of mobile telephone services, nothing else. I checked my itemised billing, and all it said, buried amongst my regular charges, was: “Content Services.”
The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) made a ruling in 2013, which the WASPA adopted: that, for cell phone subscribers, the service provider must apply a double opt-in rule. This meant that content providers have to send a subscription confirmation message by sms to the subscriber, as prescribed in the double opt-in process. That sms must include:
• a confirmation that the end-user has subscribed to the service;
• a description and the name of the service concerned;
• contact details of the premium rate service provider;
• all costs levied against the end- user for using the service;
• details of how to unsubscribe and terminate communication from the service.
None of the above rules were applied to my supposed subscription by the providers whose charges were billed to my Vodacom account, namely:
• Opera Telecom (t/a OperaInter-active/Oxygen 8 Communications);
• MT Digital (MobiTeacher).
In fact, I do not have a clue what these services are. At no stage did Vodacom or these providers send me an invoice specifying the so-called services I allegedly used or signed up for. And at no stage did I receive an sms to subscribe to these providers, or to confirm my subscription, or advising me of the terms and conditions of such a contract, or giving details of the rates for their services.
These WASP service providers, Opera Telecom (Oxygen 8) and MT Digital (MobiTeacher), refunded me in October 2017 for these charges, thus indicating that they did not have any proof of lawful subscription to their services. They had the audacity to say afterwards that if I have any other problems, I can contact their website, firstname.lastname@example.org, to assist me further, even though I never subscribed to them in the first place.
I still maintain that their actions were fraudulent and constitute a crime.
Oxygen 8 Communications is a member of the JSE, is based in Randburg, and its CEO is Tony Gordon-Smith, a UKZN graduate whose hobby is fencing.
MT Digital (sometimes known as MobiTeacher) is based in Germiston South. It has two directors: Jan Goeree, a Dutch citizen, and Mohammad Nader Soufan. Both give Dubai as their place of residence.
The actions of Vodacom are fraudulent; they added the WASP charges to my Vodacom account without confirming whether I have in fact subscribed to these WASP providers; without asking for proof of my subscription; and without asking for an invoice that detailed the services I allegedly used and proof of such services having been rendered.
Despite my earlier complaints, in January this year, I received another billing item on my Vodacom account – for R114.14 for “Vodafone live!”. I have not subscribed to it and have not received any contract for this billed subscription. I have not given Vodacom or Vodafone live!, permission to bill me for this supposed subscription in the amount of R114.14 per month, or to deduct it from my Vodacom account.
This constitutes yet another fraudulent transaction by Vodacom/Vodafone. This is how it is advertised on Google: “Vodafone live! is a treasure trove of mobile entertainment. You can download music and cellphone games, watch mobile TV and so much more. Available to all Vodacom customers, you can access Vodafone live! Directly from your cellphone – and best of all, browsing is free.
“1. Vodafone live! is free to browse. 2. A content fee is payable for content bought. 3. The user is always advised of the content fee payable for content and such user must first accept the cost prior to downloading content. 4. An SMS sent to 31116 is free. 5. A WAP-enabled cell phone is required to access Vodafone live! content.”
• Here is an example of a similar incident reported to consumer website Hello Peter by “WH Hough” another unhappy Vodacom customer in January 2017: “Since October 2016 I have unsuccessfully tried to cancel a Vodafone live! subscription on my Vodacom contract. I have used the 082111 service and have been into the Vodacare Shop in Century City in November to do this. I… am still being charged for this service for January 2017.
“The Vodacom call centre is not available and I have held on for 45 minutes to speak to a consultant, without any success. I have smsed STOP ALL to 31050 on numerous occasions and received feedback that I am not subscribed to any value-added service, yet the Vodafone live! subscription still gets added to my monthly statement. WH Hough.”
I have provided all the above information to the SAPS for further investigation as I believe it contains enough evidence to warrant the directors of these WASPA services, and Vodacom’s directors and executives, being charged with fraud and theft and various other offences.
An evil, well-planned conspiracy By Mark Young
As a consumer journalist, I have been digging around on several of these WASP fraud cases for some time and I have come to the conclusion that the entire effort is organised, syndicated theft and fraud on an industrial scale.
Aside from the cases highlighted by my and Noseweek’s various recent tweets, I will emphasise just one case which shows me that a host of illegal links have to be in place. I cannot see how the network in the one I highlight cannot be complicit in this theft. It is wickedly efficient and well planned – an organised racket – to exploit uninformed consumers.
Jean is a SASSA pensioner. She had a pay-as-you-go line with Vodacom. She had the same phone number for more than a decade and often had money vanish from her balance. Her family put it down to her being forgetful or making input errors or forgetting to switch off her data link when not needed.
A few months ago, to assist her mom, her daughter bought her R200 airtime and suggested she use it to buy data bundles and SMS packs so that the time could not then vanish. They typed the voucher in, got the confirmation the R200 had been loaded and then immediately started the bundle purchase process. When they selected the purchase option, they got a message to the effect that there was insufficient airtime available to make the purchase.
Vodacom was, apparently no help and trotted out the standard “costs you have incurred” excuse (on a pay-as-you go?) So, to assist her mom, Sandra transferred the number to an MTN SIM as an add-on to her own contract with a fixed monthly data bundle, airtime and SMS package.
The first thing that raised her ire was that, within two weeks of the transfer, her mom started getting SMS messages from several places – one being Prime Meridian Direct – on the former Vodacom number now attached to an MTN SIM. She had specifically ticked the box on the MTN contract that denied permission for any marketing on that number.
MTN also promise faithfully on their site not to provide personal data to unrelated third parties.
Sandra’s mother Jean had had her Vodacom number (RICA-registered in her name) for a decade or more, then, within two weeks of its porting to MTN, for her to start getting SMS messages from Prime Meridian (PM) – and others – addressed to “Sandra” is more than a bit odd and provides a hot, loud, smoking gun.
The leak could only have come from MTN’s database. They deny it but, given that the contract was taken at a franchise store, it is possible the franchise store is at fault.
However, mother and daughter asked me to follow up. I sent PM a letter and got a reply – essentially claiming the number came from a “lead generator” (of itself a violation of POPI) who had told them the number was found in the public domain.
They happily supplied links to the website that was apparently the source of the “public domain” data. Trouble is, these links lead to a listing of an American author’s book where the middle of the ISBN number contained the series of digits that formed the mobile number they spammed!
This is clearly a case of the lead generator having discovered a clever ploy to duck its legal obligation to make disclosure of the source of the data – trying to protect its mole and/or its own butt. Someone obviously put the number into google and spun the story with the first link they found with the numbers on the page in their reply to PM.
Of interest is that the lead generator firm’s website provides no contact number nor will PM supply it. All very illegal and dodgy.
That PM swallowed this BS about “public domain” is another story altogether. Anyway, we are on round two of that and waiting for PM to make disclosure otherwise the client is going to lay criminal charges against MTN, the store, and Prime Meridian.
Wait, there’s more. Back to the WASP nonsense.
A day-or-so after they alerted me to this issue, the elderly lady, Jean, called me again and said she was getting SMS messages about having subscribed to a service. She was scared to touch anything so she switched off her phone and drove to me to show me the messages.
Turns out that she had apparently been subscribed to a service simply by doing a quiz on Facebook that was sent to her “by your friend”. Her friend denies ever having done so, and perusal of her FB account proves this to be true.
The WASP provider confirmed the subscription was already active but refused to supply the evidence of the alleged FB and webpage visits and the originating IP, claiming it was “confidential proprietary information”.
On looking at Jean’s phone, I found the two SMS messages from MTN – apparently for her to confirm that she had activated the service – and which had not yet been replied to. The service had NOT been confirmed by the client yet it had already resulted in a charge against her number.
Apologies all round by WASP provider and MTN, but no refund for the day of service already billed.
Then we ran the USSD codes on Jean’s phone and found five (Yes five!) WASP services listed. She’d only had the phone on the MTN service for less than a month. On Sandra’s phone the same 5 had been activated.
I have dumped the browser history of the phones and trawled through it, as MTN said the owner must have visited links to subscribe to the services. Oddly, there are no SMS confirmations on either of the phones for four of those services (all of which are apparently members of WASPA) and the fifth is – you guessed it – an MTN service. No surprise – there are no SMS confirmations for that one either. The total cost of these billings would have exceeded R1,250 per month per device – more or less Jean’s entire pension from SASSA and a huge, unsustainable, chunk from Sandra’s budget.
Surely such billing practices violate the FICA requirements for responsible lending/credit etc as well?
• Silondiwe sent me a screen-grab of her communication from Vodafone on Twitter. Hers was a Vodafone live! subscription.
Following up on this at a Vodacom store, I found that all Vodafone mobile devices (prepaid and contract) have a Vodafone live! app installed by default. To get to the first screen of the app and use it, involves a subscription step that is so well disguised it is sickening.
Copy of message to me:
“Hi Mark, I had loaded R300 airtime and made two short calls, then bought seven-day data, R79, but when I checked my balance a few days later, my balance was R60. It is only because it was so apparent this time, that I called. Previously I hadn’t loaded much so wasn’t sure if I’d just used the airtime somehow.
“The lady then told me about the subscription and tried to explain that it could have happened when I downloaded something else. I’ve been unemployed a while so definitely would not have subscribed to some random anything. She couldn’t describe what it was and said it had happened to other people. She also said she would try to find the number of the company, as they no longer had it, and would get back to me. I haven’t heard any more. I also asked how to trust that this wouldn’t happen again in the future without my knowing? I don’t recall her response. She then unsubscribed me.”
I have personally found dozens of service subscriptions on several consumer phones while investigating this story. Having received messages of thanks from more than 125 Twitter followers for my tweet on how to detect and to unsubscribe from all service subscriptions – invariably, they were surprised to find them on their phones after seeing the Tweet – I did a rough calculation based on their responses and the daily totals involved, and found that that tweet had saved just those people – who happened to see and act on my Tweet and had bothered to say thank you – roughly R137,000.
My Twitter audience is small. This problem must be massive.
I feel that there needs to be a huge fuss made about this as it is a monstrous racket, making millions on a daily basis.
As you rightly said, most consumers being fleeced by this (not on Twitter) are unsophisticated and are simply having to shrug shoulders and put up with their airtime going to naught.
There needs to be a national amnesty on all WASP subs on a given day for all pay-as-you-go SIMS and thereafter they should be outlawed on pay-as-you-go devices. Those who miss their ringtone services, daily horoscopes etc, can re-subscribe by going to a store and filling out a formal application for the services – then there can be no misunderstandings.
That is, of course, in the absence of a total ban on these crooks which is what I favour. The fact that they can work together in such a devious manner indicates to me they should not be allowed near the public’s money at all.
I am happy to help Noseweek on this project so that we can make as much of a fuss as possible.
Seeing as I already have an extensive list of who to call, also happy to investigate any specific cases as well.
From the above, readers will have gathered that the latest, most ubiquitous content scam is run in-house by Vodacom itself, now determined to take all the loot, not just a cut of other people’s scams.
It’s a special new Vodacom App called Vodafone live! When you, as a Vodacom customer, send the sms message “STOP ALL” to 30333 (or 31050), all content-provider subscriptions being charged to your account will [should?] be cancelled – except one: Vodacom’s own in-house scam content provider, Vodafone live!. That takes a lot more patience and skill to kill off.
The following is a typical exchange between an objecting client and Vodacom:
Werner Krisch discovered on New Year’s Day 2018 that he had been charged a fee on his Vodacom account for an unsolicited content service. On January 2 he called the Vodacom help line on 082 111 to complain. They told him it was an “internal” WASP and that they had cancelled all content services charged to his number.
When he followed up by filing a complaint on Hello Peter, Vodacom gave him R55 worth of free airtime – which was unaccountably gobbled up within a day. In the light of his recent experiences, he decided to load only data and sms on his phone. A month later he called 082 111 and they confirmed that he had no content subscriptions running on his account. Reassured, he loaded R29-worth of airtime on his phone. The next day he found that R15 had again disappeared. He quickly transferred the remaining R12 to another cell phone number he and once again called 082 111. They could not or would not tell him how he had become subscribed once again to Vodafone live!. So on February 6 he sent them the following email: “Dear Vodacom, Can you be so kind and provide me with your electronic records as to how I have agreed to Vodafone live! subscriptions? (If this is not too much trouble.) Werner Krisch (Senior engineer, Examiner and ship surveyor)”
“Thank you for your email. Please note:
this is a system-generated email that requires your response in order to be processed. After that, a Customer Care agent will contact you within 24 hours.
Protecting your Vodacom account from fraud is important to us, so before we can help you with your query, we need to verify that you are the owner of this account.
“Please reply to this email with these three bits of personal information:
1.Last recharge amount
2.Current airtime balance
3.Prepaid price plan (Example: per-second billing, Vodacom 4 Less, Vodacom 4U Prepaid). Thank you. Vodacom Customer Care”
Krisch immediately supplied the required information. Vodacom Customer Care’s reply: “Our telephonic interaction on [number] refers. Please be advised that I have logged a service request through to our back office as they are best equipped to assist you.
“Your reference number is:… We will contact you in 24-72 hours. Regards, Busisiwe Mhlongo”
7 Feb: W.K. to Vodacom: “It is now 24 hours later and no one has contacted me.”
8 Feb: W.K. to Vodacom: “What don’t you understand? Can you f… answer the question?”
Vodacom reply: “Thank you for your email. I emailed the consultant who handled your query and requested urgent feedback. Regards Charne Petersen, Customer Care eService Team”
Further Vodacom reply: “Thank you for your email. According to our records feedback was provided as follows: ‘Please note, all recurring Vlive Subscriptions will be cancelled at the end of the subscription period’.”
It took Werner Krisch till 14 February – six weeks – to get Vodacom to cancel the service he had never subscribed to. They have still not refunded their charges for the “service”. On March 9 he received this sms: “You have subscribed to Vuclip Games @ R5/day. Enjoy.”
Krisch is not enjoying the apparently endless game of fraud one bit. He immediately went through the cancellation routine and told Noseweek: “From now on it’s war on Vodacom – until they never again dare traffic in these frauds.
“The ignorant poor need our protection from these low-class thieves.”
Vodacom runs the largest mobile network in South Africa. (It has 70 million subscribers across Africa.)
The company is 64%-owned by Vodafone UK. Jabu Moleketi is Chairman (Tel. 082 371 2222). Shameel Joosub is CEO (Tel. 082 990 0633) and Till Streichert is CFO.
Moleketi was deputy Minister of Finance in the Mbeki cabinet and is also chairman of PPC and a long-serving independent director of Remgro Ltd. The board has a Social and Ethics committee whose brief includes overseeing Vodacom’s good corporate citzenship, social responsibility and ethical behaviour. Headed by Saki Macozoma (Tel. 083 200 1300), the Chairman and CEO are also members of the board.
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