Mobile phone repairs investigation

Complaints about mobile phones are at an all-time high.
 
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  • Updated:26 Jun 2008
 

01 .Mobile phone repairs

Bandaged phone

Mobile complaints on the rise

  • CHOICE tests of mobile phones generally find they’re robust and reliable, but when something goes wrong, repair times and customer service can leave a lot to be desired.
  • Some consumers who contacted us had been denied their legal rights and given misleading and inaccurate information.
  • Consumer complaints to regulators are very high.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) receives more complaints about telcos than any other industry, with a substantial number relating to mobiles. And in the last year, complaints about mobiles to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) jumped by 4.1% to over 54,000 — over 1000 complaints per week on average. And that followed an 29% increase in the previous year. (Those figures include complaints about issues such as billing, premium SMS services and privacy, which we don’t look at in this report).

Customer service standards in particular seem to be on the slide: complaints increased by 107% in 2005–06, on the back of a 145% increase in 2004–05. Faulty mobile phones are a problem too, with over 8100 complaints in 2006-07, according to the TIO.

The industry, through the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), argues the increase in complaints about faults is due to changes in how the TIO records complaints. It also says the overall number of complaints represents a fraction (0.3%) of Australian mobile subscribers. To us, though, that’s still 54,000 unhappy customers. (There are 19.8 million mobile services, with 79% of consumers owning or using a mobile).

Please note: this information was current as of June 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


CHOICE investigation

To find out more about the difficulties consumers face, we asked online and magazine readers to tell us about the problems they’d experienced when their phone needed repairing. Customer service isn’t always bad, but overall the 80 or so emails and letters included many stories of poor standards of customer service, lengthy repair times and a host of other problems.

What we found

  • Long waiting times for repairs.
  • No loan phone (retailers aren’t obliged to provide a loan phone. Some do, though you may need to leave a deposit).
  • Consumers being denied their legal rights by retailers.
  • Bad customer service.
  • Ineffective repairs.
  • Companies 'passing the buck' and giving consumers the runaround.
  • Customers being blamed for damage they believe they didn't cause.
  • Details such as contact lists and photos erased during the repairs process.
  • Consumers locked into contracts forcing them to pay monthly fees while their phone is being repaired - and sometimes for faulty phones that can't be fixed.

CHOICE verdict

CHOICE has real concerns about the mobile phone industry’s complaints handling, repair times, customer service and warranty exclusions. Consumers aren’t getting the response they’re entitled to from some retailers and when they get knocked back, many don’t know where to turn. We think this industry needs a clean-up, including:

  • Wider jurisdiction for the TIO, making it a one-stop shop to help consumers who have mobile phone complaints. Currently the onus is on consumers to find out whether they’re covered by the TIO or their state consumer affairs/fair trading department, which makes the process more complicated and encourages them just to give up.
  • Introduction of a mobile phone customer service guarantee covering timelines for fixing faults and handling complaints (one already exists for landlines).
  • Strong action by fair trading agencies where retailers systematically try to avoid their responsibilities to consumers — such as saying physical damage isn’t covered by the warranty even when the consumer didn't cause the damage.
 
 

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02.Your rights + useful contacts

 

Know your rights

If your phone is faulty or seems not to be what you signed up for:

  • Contact customer service: Try contacting the manufacturer’s or service carrier’s customer service: technical support may be all you need.
  • Contact the retailer: it’s their responsibility to facilitate repairs, or a replacement or refund if the phone wasn’t of merchantable quality, fit for the purpose intended or as it was described (remember to keep proof of purchase). If necessary, the retailer should contact the manufacturer or repair centre; this isn’t your responsibility. However, you have the option of contacting the manufacturer or its repair centre directly to arrange repairs if you prefer. You shouldn’t have to pay anything to get the phone repaired under warranty, but you may have to cover transport costs.
  • Lodge a complaint: if your complaint isn’t dealt with satisfactorily, lodge a complaint with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. It can look into complaints about mobile phones that were sold as part of a bundled package of services (including, for example, a monthly plan or prepaid service), but not handsets that were bought separately (for these you’d contact your state’s fair trading/consumer affairs department).
  • Know your rights: The ACCC or your local fair trading/consumer affairs department can further explain your legal rights (for more, see the ACCC's Warranties and refunds brochure).
  • Implied warranty: after the manufacturer’s warranty expires, under the law you still have a statutory implied warranty — you’d reasonably expect mobile phones to last for longer than a year. However, what’s considered ‘reasonable’ varies and can only be determined by a court — a $600 phone would have a longer statutory warranty than a $70 one, for example.
  • Get a written quote: if your phone is no longer covered by any form of warranty, you’ll have to pay for repairs yourself. Contact the manufacturer or its accredited repair centre and ask for a written quote.
  • Insurance and extended warranties may cover repair costs. However, extended warranties often have the same restrictions as the original warranty and may cover even less, while an insurance excess can make claiming not worthwhile.

Useful contacts

03.Forced to wait and denied rights

 

Long wait times

You’d probably expect to wait a week or two if your mobile needed to be sent to a manufacturer or repair centre.

  • However, many readers had to wait four or five weeks and some even several months to get their phone back.
  • Unlike fixed-line services, there’s no industry-wide benchmark or customer service guarantee for mobile repair times.

3 months waiting

Soon after Donna bought her Nokia in November 2005, it started doing strange things and turning itself off. “I complained to the Telstra shop where I purchased the phone and they sent it to their repairer,” Donna says. “That took approximately two weeks. When I got the phone back it had lost its ringtones and screen savers. It was returned to Nokia to reset its factory settings. After plenty of calls and complaints to the repairer, my phone was returned after around three months. It works now.”

Denied legal rights

In July 2006, following an action by the ACCC, the Federal Court found that LG Electronics had made false or misleading statements about consumers’ warranty rights. Our research found that retailers sometimes provide misleading information too, including incorrect statements about consumers’ right to a refund, repair or replacement.

"Bad luck"

TanyaTanya’s cheap phone ‘died’ after three weeks. Initially, the retailer said “bad luck” because Tanya didn’t have a computer-generated receipt (the shop’s computer was down when she made the purchase, so she’d been given a handwritten receipt, but the shop then denied ever issuing handwritten receipts). When she pushed on this issue, the record of her purchase ‘appeared’, but the shop continued to deny Tanya her rights.

“I explained that under consumer law they had a responsibility to repair or replace the malfunctioning phone,” Tanya says. “Consumers would expect phones to last longer than a month — and it was still under warranty.”

Eventually, the retailer did send it to the manufacturer for ‘assessment’. Tanya heard nothing for four weeks. After pursuing the retailer, she had a call to say the phone was “stuffed” and had been “water-damaged”, voiding her warranty.

“I’m certain the phone was never immersed in water, but the salesperson said water damage is caused by moisture and easily happens even if the phone is left near a bathroom or in a car. He said it happens to thousands of phones. I asked what recourse I had and was told I could have the phone independently assessed at my own cost.” (High humidity and extreme temperatures can damage phones, but we think claiming moisture damage to a new phone can be caused by leaving it ‘near’ a bathroom is stretching it.)

“The poor customer service appalled me,” said Tanya. “I guess with cheap phones one doesn’t expect a lot, but to last less than one month is unacceptable.”

Wrong information

Within two weeks of purchase, Anaree’s phone started to continually switch itself off, requiring the date and time to be reset each time it was restarted. She took it back to the retailer. “The salesman disappeared for about half an hour, eventually returning to say everyone at the phone manufacturer was ‘in a meeting’, ” Anaree says. “He next said I couldn’t return the phone as it wasn’t in its original box. He said I had to keep the box for at least a year just in case the phone needed to be returned.”

The salesman also claimed that all mobile phones switch themselves off and need to have the date and time re-entered on restarting, which is clearly nonsense. Anaree disputed these statements and the salesman promised to contact her after he’d spoken to the manufacturer. “I didn’t hear anything for several days so I telephoned the shop and asked for the manager. I was told the manager wasn’t available but would call me. He never returned my call.”

Anaree contacted Consumer Affairs, which confirmed she didn’t need to return the phone in its original box. “They suggested I write a letter to the retailer, but due to work and other pressures I haven’t had time.”

Bad service and repairs

We were contacted by consumers who’d returned their phones three or four times — and some still didn’t work. Readers also told us how retailers, manufacturers and service providers seemed unwilling to take responsibility for the problems.

Buck passing

KendallAfter her phone developed a fault, Kendall was given the runaround between retailer (Optus) and manufacturer (Nokia) over a period of nearly six months.

“There was a real lack of understanding of who was actually liable for my after-sales service, whether it was Optus or Nokia,” she says. “They passed the buck to each other.”

The Department of Fair Trading was quite clear on the matter, telling Kendall that legally the retailer must provide after-sales service.

After we contacted Optus about this poor service, Kendall was provided with a replacement phone and compensated for the inconvenience she experienced. Optus apologised and says it’s reviewed its policies to ensure this sort of event doesn’t happen again. Nokia said it plans to look into Kendall’s case further.

Contact lists, photos, messages may be lost

Consumers sometimes found their repaired or replaced phone had been wiped of contacts lists, photos and other personal information. We’d recommend backing up your details from both SIM and phone memory. It’s not a bad idea even if your phone isn’t going in for repair, in case it’s lost or stolen. Options include:

  • Using a SIM reader.
  • Simply copying the details onto your computer or paper.
  • Using a SIM back-up service — contact your service provider for more.

‘New’ phone had someone else’s pictures

Within two months of purchase, Larry’s Samsung started to malfunction, so he took it back to the retailer. After numerous calls to the shop, head office and the repair centre to find out what was happening, he was told he’d get a new phone as replacement.

“I picked up the so-called ‘new’ phone after more than a month of waiting,” Larry says. “When I went through the menus I found it wasn’t a new phone or even my old one, but someone else’s. It had their details, pictures and personal videos.”

Larry returned the phone and asked for the new one he’d been promised. When he picked up his second ‘new’ phone he found that, yet again, it wasn’t new. “The keys were wobbly and the battery had a sticker indicating the phone had been repaired.” After we contacted Samsung about Larry’s experience he was offered a choice of two replacement phones. He’s considering his options.

05.Restricted warranties

 

Common exclusions

Manufacturers’ warranties contain significant exclusions that leave some consumers wondering what exactly is covered. And these warranties usually only last one year; you’d expect phones to last a lot longer. (In fact the statutory ‘implied warranty’ may still apply if your phone is fairly new — see Know your rights for more on this.)

Exclusions include:

  • Wear and tear.
  • Liquid damage, which seems a particular cause for concern. For more, see below.
  • Physical damage (even when there’s disagreement about whether the consumer was at fault).

Flippin’ hell!

Nicolle’s Nokia was damaged, not by being dropped but because its ‘flip’ opening mechanism caused the case to eventually crack. “The local Telstra Shop sent it to be repaired,” Nicolle says. “The salesperson said they’d received numerous Nokia phones in warranty with the same problem.” (Nokia, on the other hand, says there’s no ‘manufacturing issue’ with this particular phone or its flip mechanism.)

Nicolle’s phone was returned without being fixed. “Nokia told me there was ‘physical damage’ and they wouldn’t fix or replace the phone. They said they weren’t claiming I physically damaged the phone, but that it had physical damage [and so wasn’t covered by the warranty].”

Liquid damage

Liquid damage seems a particular cause for concern. Phone technicians can identify with certainty when liquid has seeped into a phone; the problem for consumers is it’s impossible to prove it wasn’t their fault. Several told us they’d never immersed their phone in water or caused liquid damage through misuse.

A large retailer agreed that users aren’t always to blame. “Most handsets can’t stand excessively dusty or moist conditions,” the company said. “If you spend all day on the phone and have particularly sweaty hands, for example, the handset could be damaged or fail.” This retailer also said incidences of and complaints about liquid damage can be higher in parts of the country where there’s higher humidity.

The TIO doesn’t record liquid damage complaints in a separate category from other faults, and was unable to verify this claim. The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association says high humidity and rain can corrode phones’ electronic circuits; go to www.amta.org.au for tips for avoiding such damage.

“You placed the phone in or near water”

Gordon and Maria, CHOICE readers from Queensland, bought two mobiles in April 2005 as part of a two-year contract with 3. Within a few months, Gordon’s phone wouldn’t turn on. He contacted 3 and the mobile was sent for repairs, but a few days later he received a call from a 3 representative saying the phone “cannot be repaired or replaced due to water found inside [it]. You have placed your mobile phone in or near water.”

“As new customers, we were totally shocked at this treatment,” says Maria. “Gordon kept explaining that the day the phone broke down had been particularly humid and that perhaps that caused the problem. He didn’t have the phone in or near water.”

06.Contract and insurance traps

 

Contract lock-ins

Our research found that consumers are forced to pay monthly fees even when they’ve no phone to use while theirs is being repaired — in some cases, they have to continue to pay for faulty phones that can’t be used or fixed.

When they contacted CHOICE, Gordon and Maria were stuck paying a monthly bill for a phone they couldn’t use — the contract didn’t expire until April 2007 and they didn’t have the time or financial resources to take the matter to the small claims tribunal (they hadn’t been told about the industry ombudsman).

After we contacted 3, the company arranged a replacement phone and credit — a good outcome, but one that wasn’t forthcoming until CHOICE got involved.

Useless insurance

Insurance to cover faults may be worthwhile, particularly for expensive phones, but a few readers complained about the high excess (the first part of a claim that you have to pay yourself). It can mean claiming is just not worthwhile.

For example, Peter’s phone broke down just outside its warranty period.

“The excess was $100,” he says. “It was more economical to buy a new phone for $120 instead. I’d been paying around $5 per month for insurance over a couple of years, but my advice is don’t bother with insurance. Now I just buy the cheapest and most basic phone available and don’t lock myself into any contract. If I drop the phone, I just buy another one — it’s cheaper.”