144 service caused NIS 20m. in damages, consumer group alleges

Bezeq calls claim a publicity stunt, wrong in every aspect.

The Israel Consumer Council charged Tuesday that telecom giant Bezeq has earned some NIS 20 million in "damages" from unsuspecting customers who dialed the company's 144 information line and incurred charges about which they may not have been aware. In response to the claim, Bezeq countered that the council was "only looking for headlines" when it referred to the fees as "damages." According to the council, the "damages" occurred when customers took advantage of the automatic dialing option offered by the information line, not knowing how much they were going to be charged for the added service. Bezeq, claimed the council, never once detailed the cost of the automatic calls, charging the customer an extra NIS 0.61 in addition to the NIS 1.81 standard fee for using the 144 service. "Almost 70 percent of Bezeq customers who have used the automatic dialing option when calling 144 said that if they knew how much they were going to be charged for the call, they would have dialed the number themselves," said the report conducted by the Geocartography Group on behalf of the consumer council. Ehud Peleg, director-general of the council, stated in a letter sent to then acting chief executive officer of Bezeq, Ika Abarbanel, that the company has essentially "stolen the free-choice" of customers by not publicizing the costs of the automatic call and demanded that the company quit hiding the truth from its customers. "Transparency is not just a catchword, but it is a way of providing defense to the customer," wrote Peleg. Abarbanel, who was filling in after Yacov Gelbard resigned following an audit into executive bonuses, himself resigned earlier this week. The survey, which questioned more than 500 random Israelis from across the demographic spectrum, also revealed that 75% of the population uses the 144 service and that while 79% know that the service costs more than a regular call, 49% do not know how much more and 36% are not aware of the additional charge attached to the automatic dialing option. The spokesman's office at Bezeq called the claims of the consumer council "wrong in every aspect." In regards to the lack of publication of additional charges, the company said, "We publicize the costs in a clear and widespread manner, in order to avoid the very claims that the consumer council is charging. The prices are advertised in newspapers, in the monthly bills sent to customers and on Bezeq's Web site." Additionally, said Bezeq, "concerning the costs of the 144 service, we have worked on this and conformed to the ruling from the Communications and Finance Ministries to reduce the charges," adding that "the tariffs that Bezeq charges on its information service line are among the lowest in the world today."