Check Your Bills – You Have Been Warned!

Originally published November 15th, 2004

Yet again last week, we were vividly reminded that as residents of what’s now widely known as “Rip-Off Ireland”, we as Irish consumers need all the help and protection that we can get to protect our hard earned euros. Despite the protestations of Minister John O’Donoghue, the revelations from both Vodafone and Eircom about their overcharging of customers only serve to show us that “Rip-Off Ireland” is alive and well.

Interestingly, in a climb-down by the Minister on December 9th, 2004, he is quoted in the Irish Times saying that there had clearly been “a marked deterioration” in price competitiveness in Ireland. He said that this had often been for reasons beyond the control of the industry but that it had had an adverse impact on traditional markets such as Britain, France and Germany. “I cannot stress enough the need for the sector to take a long hard look at how it prices itself against ever-keener competition internationally”, he said.

However, as we all know, this is merely talk from the Minister and his Government seem to be disinterested in doing anything for Irish consumers. We consumers appear to be all the time  looking towards our Government, the Consumers Association of Ireland, the Director of Consumer Affairs, and organisations such as IFSRA and Comreg to intervene on our behalves against those Irish businesses trying to overcharge and rip us off.

Overcharging revelations in Ireland today are becoming an almost weekly occurrence. And we’re always told that these “errors” are down to system errors, and maybe human error on the part of junior staff. Yet, as everyone asks, how is it that these errors are always in favour of the business, with undercharging being almost unheard of.

In researching this article, a search of Irish web pages on Google returned nearly nine thousand hits related to overcharging. There were only just about 300 hits returned related to undercharging. In 2004/2005 alone there were upwards on 16 companies, plus the Government itself,  involved in 35 different types of overcharging of their customers. There were only 3 companies who undercharged their customers.

In monetary terms, companies over charged over 1.1m Irish consumer, approximately 1,064,200, by an amount over one hundred million euros, approximately €103,743,000. This can be contrasted with approximately only 20,000 customers who were undercharged by a mere €2.5m, most of which will actually be clawed back.

Yes, these issues are reported in the media. The reports and revelations receive the veritable 15 seconds of fame, and then what. Nothing else happens. And why is this? Reviewing the names of the companies involved below, you’ll notice that they are some of the largest advertisers in all of our media in Ireland today.

And obviously these companies aren’t too keen on keeping a record of their admissions. Better move on and forget about things. A company such as O2, who proclaims in their 2003 business principles that “we are candid in our communications; we tell it like it is”, will not provide you any information on their website regarding their overcharging transgression. Similarly, Vodafone, the ESB, Bank of Ireland, NTL or Permanent TSB all do not provide any information for their customers on their websites regarding past overcharging, or what customers could do if they feel they have been overcharged.

There are checks and controls that many customers, commentators, investigations and overseeing authorities are proposing to put in place to protect the Irish consumer in future from such overcharging.

However, in the battle against the rip off and overcharging businesses today in Ireland there is more important person we must depend on to look after us in our day to day dealings – ourselves.

If, as consumers, we ourselves don’t pay careful attention to where our money is going, how can we really expect anyone else to fight in our corner? The first defence against the rip off and overcharging businesses should be our own careful actions and attention to the information we have to hand in the media.

So far in 2004, our media has told us about 12 popular companies operating in Ireland, plus the Government, who have all admitted to overcharging their customers. In these shocking high profile admissions, these companies have told us straight out that they have overcharged their customers through exaggerated bills. No rumours, or feelings about rip offs here – straight facts.

Given all of this startling evidence of overcharging by large well known Irish companies, widely reported in the media, it is confounding that upwards of 42% of the surveyed visitors to admit that they don’t check every bill they must pay.

Why then, when we have these companies themselves telling us that they are overcharging their customers, do we as consumers not check every bill that we get through the door to ensure that we are only being charged for the services we have received?

If we don’t take such a precaution as checking a bill to protect ourselves from overcharging businesses in Rip-Off Ireland, how can we expect others to protect us from these businesses?

Granted, this precaution may need a little effort. We will need to understand how are bills are laid out and broken down. We may need to take out the calculator. We may even need to make a phone call or two to request clarification or extra information from these businesses. But it’s our money – shouldn’t we make sure we only hand it over when we’re sure everything is above board?

Given that we know these companies have overcharged their customers in the past, we should therefore know what to possibly expect in the future. Can we then really expect any sympathy in that future if we ourselves are overcharged? We have been warned!!!

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