Need to know
- Telcos have been given until January to improve their response to customers experiencing financial hardship
- Advocates are concerned that reforms might not include protections for customers experiencing domestic and family violence
- CHOICE spoke to a woman about her experience with Optus, who she said failed to support her when facing debt caused by family violence
This article mentions domestic violence. If you or anyone you know needs support, contact 1800Respect on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800respect.org.au.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the federal government have put the telecommunications industry on notice to better protect customers experiencing financial hardship.
In July ACMA threw down the gauntlet, saying the industry must lift its standards for supporting vulnerable customers or face regulatory intervention.
"We expect the industry to demonstrate significant progress towards addressing these issues in the next six months. If the industry is unwilling to do so, we believe there is compelling evidence to support moving these protections into direct regulation," ACMA chair Nerida O'Loughlin says.
"The ball is now squarely in industry's court to make the necessary improvements to better protect their customers."
Stronger protections urgently needed
Consumer protections for the industry fall under the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, which is currently being reviewed by the industry peak body, the Communications Alliance. The review is expected to be completed by the end of 2024, but ACMA says stronger consumer protections can't wait.
While Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has directed ACMA to make a "directly enforceable instrument" for financial hardship protections, the regulatory body says the issues that need to be addressed go beyond financial hardship and include selling practices, disconnection processes and the treatment of customers experiencing domestic and family violence.
The continuing use of telecommunication tools by abusers in domestic violence situations is reason enough for an overhaul of the industry's approach, as the case study below illustrates.
Case study: Poor response to family violence situation
Sahara* is an Aboriginal woman living in regional Victoria whose abusive ex-partner coerced her into buying an expensive prepaid phone plan with Optus. He used the phone himself and she got no benefit from the purchase.
Later, when she fell behind on payments, Optus sold her debt of over $2000 to a debt collector who harassed her for the money despite her telling Optus she was in a family violence situation.
"It's a hell of a lot of money to pay off as a single parent and there are so many expectations as a single parent who is struggling, coming out of drug addiction as well," she says.
Optus sold her debt of over $2000 to a debt collector who harassed her for the money despite her telling Optus she was in a family violence situation
In September last year, she suffered a broken arm at the hands of her former partner. Sahara says despite telling Optus of the abuse, they still didn't offer to recall the debt, but in the end it was waived by the debt collector with the help of an Aboriginal community legal centre lawyer.
An Optus spokesperson told CHOICE the company is committed to assisting any customers affected by domestic or family violence.
"Customers who indicate they are experiencing domestic or family violence are supported by our financial hardship team who are specially trained in handling these matters," they said.
"Our team starts by ensuring our customer can safely speak before exploring bespoke solutions for their situation as we know every person and every situation is different."
An Optus storefront in Melbourne.
Strong consumer protections needed for essential services like telcos
Consumer advocates say cases like Sahara's highlight how far the telco sector has to go to improve its practices around family and domestic violence.
While ACMA's involvement is welcomed, an improved consumer protection framework may not go far enough.
"There's no question that telecommunications and our phones are essential in every aspect of our lives," says David Hofierka, senior policy officer at Consumer Action Law Centre.
"In every other essential service like energy, water and banking, all key consumer protections are already enshrined in direct regulation and we've been calling for these protections for years.
"The TCP code, the current framework, is not delivering for consumers. We've seen no demonstrable indication that telcos have reviewed or adjusted their ways to help people get or stay connected," he adds.
Hofierka says if the improved framework doesn't include protections for domestic and family violence victims and overselling protections, the government will need to step in and do more.
Significant penalties needed to deter bad behaviour
Gareth Downing, deputy CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) says that any new regulatory scheme will need stronger enforcement and penalties.
"I think what's very, very important from our perspective is getting the content right for consumer protections," he says.
Direct regulation needs to have significant financial penalties to be an effective deterrent to bad behaviourDavid Hofierka, senior policy officer at Consumer Action Law Centre
"But the second step, and perhaps equally important, is making sure that the enforcement and penalty arrangements in place provide a real incentive on the part of industry to comply and to deliver those protections for consumers."
Hofierka agrees that the regulator needs to be given greater powers.
"Direct regulation needs to have significant financial penalties to be an effective deterrent to bad behaviour," he says.
"It's been a long time coming and until it happens, we're going to keep continuing to see serious consumer harm," he adds.
*Not her real name
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.