How far will a company go to keep a customer? These days they seem to be going more than that extra mile — they are going so far as to deny customers the liberty of opting out.
Take A.K. Gupta, a senior media professional. He used a portable data card offered by Reliance Communications, which he discontinued this March. He cleared all dues and followed the official procedure to dispose of the card. But even after furnishing proof to the contrary, he is being chased by the company for outstanding dues.
Its preposterous, says Gupta. Theres proof that I have paid them more than what I should have even after the termination of service. I am no longer using the card, yet I have been set a fresh deadline to clear dues, says an exasperated Gupta.
J. Bandopadhyay had an even more harrowing experience after he discontinued Internet service from Tata Indicom. I was charged by Tata Indicom for services I never used. I complained to them against excess billing, says the government official. Finally, I discontinued the service. But I was soon served a notice, asking me to pay up. And then they kept on sending collection agents. It was really a nightmare!
Commenting on Bandopadhyays case, a Tata Communications spokesperson says, Its a stray incident. If a broadband service is disconnected, no one can possibly get a bill after that.
Data cards are offered in India by a host of service providers like Reliance, Airtel, Vodafone, Tata Indicom, BSNL and so on. Most of these companies maintain that a consumer can get bills after termination of service if, and only if, he or she has outstanding dues.
A spokesperson for Reliance Communications says, Theres a proper billing cycle. If you disconnect your service somewhere in the middle of the cycle, the company will charge you for the period stretching from the start of the billing cycle for a particular month till the day on which you had discontinued the service. In other words, a consumer can receive bills after termination of service if he does not pay the outstanding amount (the billed plus unbilled amount, including tax during the fragmented period of usage). Most customers tend to avoid paying for this period. Besides, we maintain utmost transparency. If someone contacts customer care, we do furnish all the records.
But many customers are not convinced. P. Raghu, an economist, feels that this is a ploy by telecom service providers to retain customers by hook or by crook. If they show that you have outstanding dues, you cannot discontinue the service easily, says Raghu who had a hard time dealing with his Internet service provider which insisted that he had uncleared bills even after he had made his payments diligently. Curiously, all this began the moment I informed the company that I would like to discontinue the service, he says.
But Internet service providers are not the only ones to face flak from consumers for unfair billing after termination of service. Shahanshah Mirza was issued a free credit card by his bank. In the application form, I stated that the dues on my credit card should be deducted from my savings account every month. This, however, was not done. I was later asked to pay up the amount on my card along with interest, says Mirza, a senior finance ministry official in Calcutta.
I opted out of the service. Yet I still get statements. And I have been threatened by bank officials that they will blacklist me from card services in other banks, says Mirza.
But at least Mirza opted for the card. S. Banerjee, who works at an MNC in Calcutta, has been asked to foot the bill for an unsolicited credit card issued by a foreign bank. The bill amount is paltry. But why should I be billed for services I havent availed of, he asks.
According to Consumer activist and lawyer Prabir Basu, such complaints are quite common. We get innumerable complaints against both telecom service providers and banks from people who are asked to clear their dues even after discontinuing services, says Basu.
Discontinuation of service is apparently a fairly simple procedure. The Reliance spokesperson says that to discontinue service customers need to fill in termination forms and clear the outstanding amount.
But as Anil Prakash, chairman of the Delhi-based Telecom User Group of India, one of the 41 consumer organisations registered with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) dealing with complaints against telecom service providers, points out, Getting billed even after discontinuation of services is a widespread problem.
Prakash adds, The Telecom Citizens Charter lays down rules and regulations regarding how telecom providers in the country can look into such complaints via call centres, nodal officers from companies and other appellate authorities, he says.
The Telecom Consumers Protection and Redressal of Grievances Regulations, 2007, says, In case a consumer is not satisfied with the redress of his grievance by the call centre, such consumer may approach… the nodal officer of the service provider for redress of his grievance. A nodal officer is appointed by a service provider (Trai has a registered list of nodal officers from various companies along with their contact details on its web portal).
The regulations also stipulate that if consumers are not satisfied with the way a nodal officer has dealt with their complaints, they can approach the appellate authority appointed by the service provider concerned.
When it comes to credit cards, the Reserve Bank of India guidelines on wrongful billing says, The card issuing bank/NBFC (non-banking finance company) should ensure that wrong bills are not raised and issued to customers. In case a customer protests about any bill, the bank or NBFC should provide customers with an explanation and, if necessary, documentary evidence… within a maximum period of 60 days with a spirit to amicably redress the grievances.
The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission observed in a 2004 ruling, A customer who has settled the account with the bank is not continuously receive statements showing amounts as outstanding.
Banking experts do not dismiss the possibility of a consumer getting bills or statements even after discontinuation of financial services like credit cards. But these are more of an exception than a rule, says Amitava Guha, former deputy managing director, State Bank of India.
If, however, you are in the unfortunate position of being an exception, make sure that you fight your case until you get your problem resolved.
(Some names have been changed on request)