A couple of lessons in consumer law by someone completely dependent on her mobile phone

About one third of Australian households are now mobile-only – I am one of those, by choice and circumstance (I do not live full-time in Oz). While there are no up to date statistics about the number of mobile-only households in New Zealand (although the most recent data, from 2011, suggests that at only about 15%, NZ lags behind the rest of the world in the shift from fixed landline to mobile), I can also be considered a mobile-only household during the time that I live here in NZ, since it's a bit difficult to connect a fixed landline when you live in a house bus…

The upshot of all of this is that I:

  1. Am completely dependent on my mobile phone, especially for business (I am self employed) and
  2. Have to put up with horrendously expensive mobile data costs.

Happily, I have found a monthly mobile plan that keeps me pretty happy – it includes unlimited calls and texts in NZ, unlimited calls to Australia (both landlines and mobiles), 2.5GB of mobile broadband a month and lots of special offers including free Spotify and, more recently, the chance to try out Lightbox, New Zealand's own homegrown alternative to Netflix. 

So when my iPhone 5C started unexpectedly shutting down last week I was in real trouble. I discovered the only way I could restart it was by doing a soft reset i.e. holding both the Home button (big circle below the screen) and the Sleep/Wake button (on top of the iPhone) simultaneously. I consulted the Apple Support website and it recommended that I try restoring the phone to factory settings. I tried this but no luck. So I called Apple Support on the phone. Important note: I purchased my iPhone about 18 months ago.

With the input of various Apple customer service staff, I spent a couple of days troubleshooting (trying an iOS restore again, trying to live without any of my apps, deleting all my photos etc) after one person suggested the problem might have been the result of a corrupt installation. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Still no luck.

When I called back the third time, the customer support person sent me an email with a link that would run a diagnostic test on my phone. This determined that the battery was faulty, so the focus of the call shifted from trying to help me fix the phone to "exploring the options available to me" to get it repaired.

Option 1: Take my phone to an Apple Store, but unfortunately there are none in New Zealand.

Option 2: Take it to my local authorised Apple repairer, but unfortunately there are none in the top of the South Island. I was told by several different staff that there was in fact an authorised repairer in Nelson. I explained (several times) that this business had closed in May.

Option 3: Mail in the phone to Apple, but this would leave me without a phone for up to 10 days. Not an option.

Option 4: Pay for Apple's express replacement service, but the first three people I spoke to couldn't process this request because I had bought the phone in Australia but currently live in New Zealand.

After almost two hours on the phone (and speaking to Apple staff in three different countries), the customer service team member (based in the US) promised to call me back within an hour.

Many hours later, I got a call from a customer service supervisor in Singapore who, after we replayed the whole tortuous conversation for the third or fourth time, offered to waive the express replacement shipping fee and send me a phone if I authorised a charge of about $1000 on my credit card. After explaining to him that this was not an option (I do not have a credit card in NZ), he put me on hold for a while then told me that it would only be "about $425" and suggested I could use my debit card. I kept asking how much it would actually cost me once the faulty phone had been received and inspected by the service team and we went around in circles for a while before he told me that it was just a holding fee and that I would be charged nothing. It sounded too good to be true so I made very sure that I understood him correctly. The only problem was that I didn't have enough money on my debit card to proceed. I told him I would sort it out and call back in the morning.

When I called back this morning, I was delighted to reach the local Apple Support team in Auckland, but unfortunately they did not believe that I was eligible for a free replacement phone (despite the case notes recorded against my support request number) so I was transferred a few times, eventually ending up with a supervisor in the US, who also wanted to hear the story again… from the beginning!! Understandably I was a little frustrated, so I asked to speak to a supervisor back in New Zealand. By now I had been on the phone again for almost two hours (oh, and had been disconnected once, so I'd had to call again).

Finally, another supervisor in the US was on the end of the line, and she explained that she was an Asia Pacific support specialist. To my complete relief, she confirmed that I was indeed eligible for a free replacement phone and explained that this was in keeping with Australian and New Zealand consumer laws, which effectively extend a manufacturers liability beyond the standard 12 month warranty

These new consumer laws followed investigations by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 2011, when telcos were warned that “you cannot wipe your hands clean of a faulty product just because the manufacturer’s warranty period has ended, particularly when your product is supplied in conjunction with a lock-in period that is longer than the manufacturer’s warranty”. All the major telcos also agreed to provide 24-month warranties for mobile phones.

The problem is that, according to Consumer NZ, most telco sales staff – and, in my experience, many of the Apple Support team – do not know about these consumer laws. I got lucky – I was transferred through to a customer service supervisor who knew and understood Apple's obligations. I guess it also had a bit to do with my sheer perseverance – by now I had been on the phone to Apple for a sum total of about five hours. I'd just heard about the documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy, which presents the untold story of planned obsolescence (in other words, companies who engineer their products to fail), which buoyed my efforts. It is completely unreasonable to pay almost $900 for a phone and then its battery stops working after only 18 months. I won't quite believe it until I see my new phone – and the $900 authorisation (not $425, by the way) disappear from my card – but I am hoping that my story has a happening ending.

Coincidentally, I also had to call Spark customer service today too (I'm a sucker for punishment) after I discovered that my mobile broadband data allowance for the phone had been gobbled up last night by watching one episode of Outlanders on my laptop. You see, Spark sent me a text a few weeks ago offering me a free trial of Lightbox. I clicked on the link in the message and signed up on my phone. At no stage in the process did Spark or Lightbox clarify what "free" meant. I made some assumptions, based on other bundled offers I'd taken up in Australia in the past, where free meant no subscription or data charges.

Over the past few weeks, I tried watching a few shows at my friend's house, using her broadband WIFI. It didn't work so, last night, I turned on my mobile hotspot and we watched the first episode – and loved it. This morning I discovered that I had almost no data left for the month – only one episode had used about 1.5GB of my tiny 2.5GB monthly allowance.

So I called Spark's customer service line and explained, clearly and calmly, that I wanted a credit for the data, since I had not been properly informed that the data costs were not included in the free trial. After speaking to three staff, I got put through to someone with the seniority (and sense) to offer me an acceptable remedy – she would give me a free 1.5GB "add on" for the month. I was happy with this solution, but won't be using Lightbox again. And I question Spark's commitment to good consumer practice when they offer a "free" Lightbox trial to people like me, who only have a mobile broadband account with them. And it's a growing number – mobile phone internet connections in New Zealand increased 16 percent in 2014 from 3.2 million connections in 2013 to 3.7 million in 2014. Due to the large number of devices, apps, and networks available, more people have access to a wider range of goods and services through the internet while on the go. But the reality is that New Zealand has the most expensive mobile broadband data in the world, making it completely untenable to watch streaming television via a personal hotspot. I guess it's off to the video shop for a bit of old school technology for me…



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