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By Tony Chan

One story that was circulated in social circles in Hong Kong involves a wealthy businessman and a famous Chinese restaurant. As a closure to his meal with some partners, the businessman ordered red bean soup, a popular Chinese dessert. The waiter then asked casually whether he would like some dried tangerine peel with it, to which the businessman answered in the positive.

When the businessman later asked for his bill and glanced at the total, he was astounded to find that each bowl of the red bean soup, which typically costs between $3-4, was listed at over $30. When he asked the waiter "why", he was told that the dried tangerine peel he had ordered were actually "thousand-year-old" ones - a few thin strips of which led to the drastically inflated price.

The moral of the story is that there are some practices that can be construed as unscrupulous, even though the waiter may have (naturally) thought that a wealthy businessman out for dinner would expect the best quality food, hence served him the "thousand-year" stock. Still getting a bill that is ten times what you expected in the first place, comes as a bit of a shock.

This was precisely what happened to a mobile user with one of Hong Kong's leading mobile operator.

The user had given a phone, complete with a subscription plan, to his father. A few months later, he found that the bill had more than doubled. He asked his father what kind of calls he had been making, but his father said just regular calls. His father did complain that the phone receives regular text messages listing the price of some Hong Kong stocks.

Not our service

After looking into the matter, he discovered that the network had signed his father up for an information service that provided updated stock information. Each one of those text messages costs money, and there were many during the course of a day.
He called customer service at the operator to explain the situation and asked that they cancel the service and waived previous charges because it was obviously a mistake and his father had not purposely signed up for such a service. The customer service staff called back after checking with their back-office personnel and explained that they had records of the usage and the charges were right.

Before arguing further, the user asked a couple of simple questions:

Can you disable the feature for this number in the future? "No, we can't do that since the system is programmed to accept these services." Do you have any proof that this number actually signed up for this service? "No. Actually, it is the content provider that is offering and charging for this service, we are just the network that delivers it and we take care of the billing."

There are some obvious problems with this whole situation. The contract that the user signed originally is between him and the operator only, not with any content provider. So any charge that the content provider claims from the user is not valid. Otherwise, the content provider can start charging "thousand-year" versions of information.

This raises a serious question on the mobile Internet. Unlike the Internet, where any registration or pay content requires a verified credit card number, or PayPal account, the mobile Internet already provides content providers with a pre-registered account - their mobile number.

So without having to confirm registration, subscription and payment, content providers can theoretically sign people up automatically and start charging them money. And that is what happened to the user in this story.

According to his investigation, the content provider conducted a trial of the service and automatically delivered the information to some users. If the users didn't select to decline, or cancel, the service after the free trial period, then they began charging people for the service.

The user, after escalating his dispute to the management level at the operator, won his case, and the fees were waived.

How many more users are out there receiving services that they are not aware they had to pay for? How many others have ended up paying the bills afterward without know why?
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