Its the perfect scam: a service you dont know anything about, never asked for, pay for regularly, and seems to be legal. It has an estimated 1.9 million victims in Australia.
The practice is called “Third Party Billing”, where one company handles the invoicing and billing for another company. For example, says Yasmin Parry, of the ABC program Tell Me Straight, her chosen telco Optus has an agreement with a content services company called MIA Sphere Live, also known as Digital Turbine.
She says after a couple of months she noticed that “weird looking text messages” on her phone were not just spam, but clues that she had somehow subscribed to “a premium content service”. It only showed up when she noticed she had been charged $100 on her phone bills by a company she had never heard of.
“Supposedly I was receiving access to a suite of games and trivia,” she says, “although it was never made clear where I could access them.”
Parry tried using the opt-out number, but without success. She called Digital Turbine “multiple times” but their customer service team kept hanging up on her. After she took her complaint directly to Optus she was able to cancel the “agreement”. However, she notes that there is no way of knowing how many other services and companies are engaged in this practice.
Una Lawrence, director of policy at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), told Parry around 12% of Australians, around 1.9 million, have had these odd texts pop up on their phone. A survey by ACCAN found more than one in 10 have experienced unexpected third-party charges. The total cost to consumers could be as high as $20 million over the last six months.
It seems that people “sign up” for these services when they click on a link, then either click on another link verifying that's what they want, or replying to a sign-up text message. At the time, you might think you are simply browsing, not agreeing to anything.
Ms Parry went through over 100 emails she received in response to her program, and found that Telstra was most complained about, and Optus second. After the ABC gave Optus evidence of the activity, Optus temporarily suspended the service provider to check its compliance status.
The only way to know this is happening is to check your phone bill carefully for unusual charges. They are usually low, in the region of $10, and so easy to overlook. Some third party billing, such as purchasing ringtones or music, is legitimate, because you have decided to buy the product.
ACCAN suggests that if the opt-out option doesn't work, and you get no response from the company's hotline, you should contact your telco. If they say they cannot help, then you should take your complaint to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.