The ACCC said in a statement that Vodafone has admitted it likely breached rules “from at least 2015” by charging customers for content they either had not agreed to or did not even know they had bought.
It relates to the carrier’s third-party Direct Carrier Billing (DCB) service and various digital content, including ringtones and games.
“The DCB service was automatically enabled on Vodafone customers’ mobile accounts, and purchases could occur with as little as one or two clicks. The purchases would then be charged on the customers’ next Vodafone bill,” the competition watchdog said.
“The content was marketed and provided by third parties who paid Vodafone commissions for sales to its customers.”
ACCC chair Rod Sims said the process meant “thousands” of customers had been charged for content without knowing it.
The service operated from “at least” 1 January 2013 through to 1 March 2018, the regulator said, with charges made automatically on both prepaid and postpaid mobile phone accounts.
It added that Vodafone had moved to phase out DCB subscriptions in mid-2015, following a rise in the number of customer complaints in 2014 and 2015.
Customers who believe they may be eligible for a refund have been urged to contact Vodafone directly on 1300 650 410.
A Vodafone spokesperson subsequently issued an apology to affected customers on behalf of the telco.
“We never want to see any customer charged for a service they don’t want,” the spokesperson said.
“We accept that some of our customers were provided with Direct Carrier Billing services they did not want and we’ve taken steps to prevent that happening again.
“We apologise to our customers who were affected and will ensure they are notified about our refund program. We will start contacting affected customers in the next few months and encourage them to contact Vodafone if they have questions or concerns.”
The company also pointed out that no proceedings were launched nor any penalties imposed by the ACCC against it.
Vodafone has so far not confirmed the number of customers that may be affected.
Nearly 300,000 Optus customers yet to claim refunds
Meanwhile, Optus was fined $10 million by the Federal Court earlier this year after it was found to have made false or misleading statements to its customers about similar charges.
This month, the ACCC said that only around a quarter of the 390,000 Optus customers eligible for a refund have so far claimed the monies owed to them.
“Many of the affected customers were charged for content that they never wanted and never used, and from which they found difficult to unsubscribe. In some cases, children unwittingly incurred charges,” ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said.
The ACCC urged Optus customers to check whether they had received communications from Optus about refund eligibility in relation to its Direct Carrier Billing service, and to call the telco directly on 1800 672 501 if they believe they are owed a refund.
Telstra was also fined $10 million last year over the same issue. In September, it was revealed that it had repaid $9.3 million to around 72,000 affected customers.