CHOICE has been hearing from Optus customers who aren’t impressed with the company’s latest trick of upping monthly rates in the middle of contracts.
One consumer who recently got in touch, Bob Clancy, brought us up to speed. “I'm about halfway through a standard two year contract with Optus for broadband and home phone. How is it that they can break or change the terms of the contract, but consumers are threatened with dire penalties if we break the same contract? Also, their advice that more details and alternative plans can be obtained from their website is false. Their website is a consumer nightmare.”
Clancy received a letter from Optus that got straight to the point. “The monthly access fee for your yes Fusion $99 plan will increase by $6.00 per month from $99.00 to $105.00 per month”. In case that wasn’t affronting enough, the company added another twist, that 13/1300 calls “will also be removed from the included value of your plan and charged at 35c per call”.
Clancy had the option of switching to another Optus plan without paying a break fee, but that hardly took the sting out of the company’s tactics.
Australian Consumer Law generally does not "allow a party to make changes to a contract on a unilateral basis” unless the change "may be reasonably necessary to protect a party’s legitimate business interests".
The business interest in this case would appear to be maintaining or increasing profit margins, though Optus told Clancy the price change “was based on an ongoing review of our costs and our competition to ensure we are able to continue offering you great value and quality service across the board”.
Clancy did a legal check of his own. “I had a quick read of their Standard Agreement form, in particular Section 2A of the ‘Consumer Terms’ document, which purports to set out the conditions in which the contract may be altered. It's very much weighted in the supplier's favour, but I'm pretty sure that increasing the established fee because their costs have risen is not among the conditions for alteration justified by 2A.”
In fairness, Optus belatedly recognised the error of its ways. The company sent a second letter a few weeks later saying “due to an error on our part, we haven't given you sufficient notice of the change” and offered to credit the $6 back to Clancy’s account for a month. And Clancy says he’s now on a cheaper plan with Optus and satisfied with the agreed-upon deal – unless they fail to honour it. “I've been told plenty of incorrect things by Optus shopfront and call centre people before, which took heaps of straightening out”.
It goes without saying that Optus isn’t the only telecom to rub customers the wrong way in recent times, but the company seems to have brought the industry to a new low in customer service for the moment. As Clancy put it, “it's pretty poor form to be blithely increasing fees which are supposed to be bound by a two-way contract”.
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