Thursday, January 12, 2023

Tom Tuite

Three Ireland wrongly charged more than 1,600 phone users for data roaming when they travelled outside the EU and demanded almost €30,000 from a customer after two days in Monaco, a court has heard.

The mobile operator pleaded guilty at Dublin District Court on Thursday to eight charges of breaking Article 15 of the EU roaming regulations.

It follows an investigation by the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) in response to eight customer complaints.

Judge Anthony Halpin refused to accept a charity donation instead of the Probation Offenders Act to spare the firm a recorded conviction. The offences carry a maximum fine of €5,000 per charge.

Despite an abundance of mitigation factors, including refunds, and genuine remorse, he noted that many people had been greatly upset.

He recorded convictions against the phone giant and imposed fines totalling €2,400.

System errors

The breaches, caused by system errors commencing in 2018, related to a failure to implement a cap when customers reached €50 of charges for data roaming and a failure to send informational notifications as they reached 80 per cent and 100 per cent of the €50 limit.

Three Ireland identified 1,640 customers impacted by at least one of the issues, though many experienced more than one. The total value of the charges to affected customers was about €632,000, or an average of €385.

The company wrongly billed more than 120 customers over €1,000 and eight others in excess of €10,000.

The issue primarily impacted customers who travelled outside the EU.

The court also heard that the Covid-19 pandemic reduced the effect of the problem because fewer people went outside the bloc.

The court had previously spared the company criminal convictions after it donated sums to charity in a 2015 prosecution by ComReg and other cases brought by the Data Protection Commission.

Amelia Nahum, an authorised officer with ComReg, agreed with Remy Farrell SC, prosecuting, that without the cap, the company charged €16.99 per MB in roaming charges outside the EU.

Giving two illustrative examples, she said using a connected device to look at The Irish Times homepage would cost €25.

Or a customer could have been charged €26,700 if they watched a 40-minute, 1.6 GB episode on a streaming site like Netflix.

It also impacted customers not actively using their phone apps which could still download and use data.

Guilty plea

The court heard how it affected the eight complainants, most of whom had been on holiday when they incurred the improper charges, and Three Ireland cut them off. None of them had to come and give evidence due to the guilty plea.

The first case involved a woman on a break in France who went on a day trip to Monaco, a non-EU member nation, in November 2021. She used her phone twice for about five minutes to find her way around.

However, that resulted in being billed for €1,485 for data.

The next complainant also took a day trip by bus from France to Monaco in December 2021. Three Ireland charged €376, even though her phone “never left her bag”.

A married couple was on a Mediterranean cruise from Spain to Italy in February 2022, and the wife got charged €495 because the boat went into international waters. She also got disconnected, and they quit the trip three days early and flew home at extra cost because they did not want to be without a phone in case they became separated.

Three Ireland asked the the fourth complainant to pay €170 because she travelled to and from France via Geneva in Switzerland in February last year.

The company demanded an extra €407 from a musician when he travelled to New York for work in December 2021.

Charged €30,000

A businessman who had to spend two days in Monaco for work “got a shock” to find he had been charged €29,298, and his service was suspended.

The court heard that another Three Ireland customer was holidaying in France in early 2021, but after a day trip to Monaco, she was billed an extra €170 for data use.

The final charge involved a man who went with his family to New York in November 2021 and used data to navigate his way around. He was charged €557.

Pleading for leniency, Ronan Kennedy SC stressed that Three Ireland complied fully with ComReg’s investigation and handed over comprehensive information, which formed the basis of the prosecution.

He said the company was “deeply embarrassed” and offered a sincere, heartfelt and unqualified apology to customers for the lack of appreciation when they came forward.

Counsel asked the court to note that the guilty plea spared the court from holding a lengthy hearing.

Mr Kennedy said Three Ireland identified five significant system errors, which have all been resolved, compensated all affected customers and paid ComReg’s costs.

 

 

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