Freeserve customers paying a monthly subscription fee for unlimited Internet access could be unwittingly running up massive telephone bills.
One distraught reader alerted ZDNet News UK to the problem when he received a £500 telephone bill for Internet access, three months after subscribing to the "Freeserve Anytime" package. The monthly subscription charges that Freeserve was debiting from his bank account should have covered all charges for the free Internet access that he was receiving.
The customer in question was not informed that he needed to insert a six-digit prefix in front of the number downloaded from the Freeserve installation disk, in order to avoid incurring extra charges.
"Freeserve has admitted that this prefix was not displayed anywhere on the site or on any paperwork, and unless you had prior knowledge of call charges, there was no way of knowing that this prefix was to be used," he told ZDNet.
The wording that appears on the Freeserve Anytime configuration instructions makes no reference to this six digit prefix number. But there is a warning that reads "it is essential that you carefully read and follow all three steps on this page, or you risk being charged for your Internet calls (for which Freeserve cannot be held responsible)".
The principal lawyer at the Consumers' Association, Ajay Patel, said the small print in any contract is regulated by unfair contract terms rules. "The small print must be legible, in plain English, and anything onerous has to be brought to the attention of the customer." In the case of this complaint, the clause that Freeserve is relying on may be deemed unenforceable if it is too buried in text, meaning that the customer would be eligible for compensation.
"Of course, if we are at fault, we will reimburse him," said a Freeserve spokesperson.
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