A telecommunications company signed up a pensioner for more than $15,000 worth of handsets and accessories, according to an investigation into Australian mobile services complaints. 

Despite the man relying on government income support for physical and mental conditions, the telco contracted him to multiple handsets and plans, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman says.

He was then charged with high payout costs for breaking the deal when unable to make repayments. 

The telco argued the customer had passed a credit check and previously paid his accounts on time but waived the cancellation fee following the TIO complaint.

The matter was one of 63,000 to do with mobile services brought to the attention of the ombudsman between July 2020 and March 2022.

While the number of overall complaints dropped during this period, the proportion about mobile services increased, compared to internet and landlines. 

Almost a third of complaints related to mobile services up to June 2021 and the proportion peaked at 42 per cent in the year’s final three months. 

No or delayed action and fee disputes made up almost four in five complaints.

The ombudsman’s new systemic investigations report also detailed complaints about other telcos signing up people for products consumers didn’t understand and couldn’t afford, and promising mobile coverage that wasn’t received.

The report found four key problems driving mobile complaints: mis-selling of mobile services, lack of information about service reliability, inaccessible self-service and automatic payments resulting in service loss or disadvantage.

“We aren’t seeing the same improvements in complaints about mobile services as we are in other service types,” Ombudsman Cynthia Gebert said.

“This is concerning because when something goes wrong with a mobile service, the impacts can be really disruptive to people’s lives.

“In today’s world, mobile phone services are essential not only for daily life … but also for safety during an emergency like a bushfire or flood.”

The ombudsman recommends telcos help consumers determine whether the product is right for them, be clearer about the quality of expected services, ensure self-service options are available and let customers know about upcoming direct debits.

Consumers have also been advised to research new plans, including coverage maps and payment methods.

They should contact telcos if their service is not as expected or more flexibility is needed for upcoming payments, and to contact the TIO if they’re unable to reach their telco.