But, the authority says its latest review of hardship practices by the telecommunications industry reveals that telco providers often don’t know if a consumer is experiencing financial hardship until the consumer is placed into credit management.
According to the ACMA this may be because the consumer doesn’t disclose their financial hardship and/or the telco provider doesn’t have the appropriate practices and procedures in place to help identify consumers experiencing financial hardship in the early stages of the bill cycle.
This latest review of the industry’s hardship practices and obligations captured under the TCP code follows the ACMA’s original audit of the industry’s compliance with the rules in 2013 which included a proposal to review telco complaints in two years to assess whether the trend towards compliance continued.
The ACMA says it identified a number of telco providers who had increased Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) complaints relating to financial hardship, and asked them to provide information about their financial hardship practices.
The authority also reminds the industry that telcos have an obligation to help their customers who experience financial difficulties according to the rules set out by the TCP Code, which it says provides a host of consumer safeguards for mobile, landline and internet customers.
The safeguards set out clear rules that telco providers must follow when communicating and dealing with customers.
“An important safeguard relates to customers who have difficulty paying their bills or meeting unexpectedly high bills. Telcos must offer these customers spend management tools, financial hardship advice and options to restrict services,” the ACMA says.
Consumer activist group, the Australian Communications Consumer Activist Network (ACCAN) says it is glad to see the positive levels of telco compliance with the TCP Code obligations around financial hardship.
An ACCAN spokesman stressed the importance of telcos having easily accessible information and contact details for consumers who are experiencing financial hardship “as any consumer may find themselves in this position at some point in their lives”.
The consumer group launched its own Hardship Portal in December setting out a range of resources to assist people through tough times and says the portal is a helpful tool for consumers who are experiencing tough times and finding it hard to pay for their phone or internet bill, as well as for those who “just want to save money as it is full of helpful tips to use before things get out of hand”.
In this latest compliance review the ACMA says it had asked telcos to:
• Identify how many financial hardship applications they received in a specific period of time and how many financial hardship arrangements they made
• Indicate what kind of payment arrangements were being made and whether any payment arrangements needed to be renegotiated
• Provide copies of reminder notices given to consumers
• Explain their financial hardship complaint process, including how they train their staff on the issue.