Why are Touch and Alfa forcing us to pay for a service we didn’t request?

 

Photo credit: http://www.geograph.ie/photo/3466829

Photo credit: http://www.geograph.ie/photo/3466829

للقراءة باللغة العربية

Updated 12:36 p.m. to fix an editing error in the first paragraph.

Touch or Alfa mobile users in Lebanon: You might want to check your messages to see if you have been subscribed to “Semme3ni, “a ring-back tone/RBT service, without your consent.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I received SMSes from “Samme3ni” telling us that “we are glad to offer you a free ‘Samme3ni’ tone, for a period of 1 month.” Without our consent, we had been subscribed to a service that we had to take action to delete, if we wanted to avoid being charged after the free period expired. The message advised to send ‘D’ for free to 1151, which I did successfully, but when my wife did so—twice—she received this message:

Operation failed. To delete Samme3ni tone, dial 1002 (extra1USD/min) or 1001 (extra 0.9USD/min), or send “Delete” to1002 (extra 0.9USD/SMS). Thank you.

So not only could she not delete the ring tone, but also she would actually have to pay more than the monthly subscription rate of 0.70USD to get this unwanted intruder off her phone.

I complained on Facebook and discovered that many of my friends have been questioning this service and have also been victims of this seeming scam. Wadih, a human rights activist, asked the reason behind enforcing the opt-in on users. Amer Tabsh, a technologist and TV host mentioned that without any anti-spam law, little can be done on this issue. He suggested that the sector needs to be privatized to have this and other problems solved. Others like Sea Jea didn’t agree with Tabsh’s assessment, and mentioned the need to amend telecom legislation, specifically Law 431. Others—Rana, Hiba, Jana, and Ibrahim—shared similar experiences and how they were enforced to pay fees for a service they didn’t ask for in the first place.

We relayed the situation to Dr. Walid Karam, a consultant to the minister of telecommunications. A few days later, Dr. Karam shared a comment on the same thread that the Ministry of Telecommunications (MOT) has officially informed the mobile operators of the need to enforce a free opt-out of this service, not the end of the story, perhaps, but definitely a step in the right direction.

What should happen next:

  • The Ministry of Telecommunication and the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) should organize this field and adapt anti-spam regulations for mobiles and email similar to regulations in other parts of the world, where double opt-in is the standard
  • Alfa and Touch should remove the enforced opt-in (they subscribe you) and replace it with optional opt-in (you subscribe yourself) for this and other services
  • Alfa and Touch should protect users’ data and develop public user data protection policies that guarantee that personal data won’t be shared with third-party companies without users’ permission
  • Finally, as a user, you should remove this service if you didn’t request it by calling your provider and registering a complaint.

 

13 Responses to Why are Touch and Alfa forcing us to pay for a service we didn’t request?

  1. Fadi June 10, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this!
    This is my story with the Samme3ni tone service.
    I was travelling outside of Lebanon since March, end of May I return to Lebanon to find out people calling me now hear an annoying – who would want this – song instead of the dialing tone. So I go back in my SMSes and find out I had received the message you mentioned (you’re subscribed for free and can deactivate for free for first months, at crazy expense after), which I had ignored, because what respectable company would allow a third party to take money from subscribers without their consent? But well seems I was hooked and had unwillingly already paid at least 1 month’s subscription. Outraged I call Alfa on 111 on a Sunday and register my complaint and demand a follow up and that they disable the service and refund me. A couple days later, they did refund me 2$ and I got a call later from an Alfa employee informing me I was unsubscribed for free, before she could hang up, I asked: what about the tens of thousands of other users off of who LibanCall is making money without their consent with a service that no one would want? She replied that they did the same for everyone and hung up. Now I’m sure they didn’t unsubscribe and surely not refunded the masses.
    But for real, alfa, touch, libancall or whoever wants to make money offering expensive useless services, at least try to come up with a service at least some people would like to use and whatever you do, you are not allowed to take money from people without their consent.
    I also heard about a service that charges the people calling you more and “donates” that money to a humanitarian NGO, only in Lebanon.
    Sorry about the rant..

  2. jessica June 10, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your story, Fadi. It’s helpful to know that this isn’t an isolated incident. We’re also wondering about how many people were subscribed and still don’t know, and what kind of revenue this is generating for the companies involved.

  3. Habib June 11, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

    That’s amazing/kinda scary that it just took a Facebook post to create regulations that were not there. Why were they not there?

    Which raises a whole set of issues. How exactly do 3rd party service providers like this one (LibanCall?) enter into business with the government? How do they get paid?

    I don’t see how this relates to spam, this is unauthorized cash withdrawal, which is flat out theft isn’t it? There seem to be some underlying mechanics that allow this, I think we need to follow that thread to get to the bottom of it. Can any company just start taking money from your account?

    Anyway, great that you guys are raising this. Otherwise no one had even mentioned it. And how long has it gone on??

  4. Mairam September 4, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Hello. Any updates on this? Last time I checked (a week ago), you still had to pay to opt out despite the ministry’s instructions to the operators.

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