If you find yourself in financial hardship and think you may not be able to pay your phone or Internet bills, contact your service provider and let them know about your circumstances—they may be able to help you. The sooner you alert them, the better.
You may have difficulties in paying bills because of a sudden change in personal circumstances, such as loss of employment or the need to care for a sick relative, or because of ongoing financial constraints.
The possible consequences of not confronting your outstanding debts include the cancellation of services and a bad credit record.
There are options available for people experiencing financial hardship to stay connected and manage their spending on telecommunications services.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is working with telecommunications service providers to encourage:
- the development of a wider range of products and services for people experiencing financial hardship
- information provision to raise public awareness of the available options
- better training to equip telecommunications industry staff to help people in financial difficulty and
- more sensitive debt collection procedures.
Basic tips for managing phone use and expenditure
There are ways you can check whether your existing telephone or Internet plan is the most appropriate for your needs, regardless of how long your financial difficulties last.
Owning or leasing your phone
It may be cost effective for you to buy your home telephone handset rather than leasing one from your telephone service provider. By buying your own handset, you avoid leasing charges, usually around $2.00 to $3.00 a month. Over time, this should lead to financial savings.
However, buying a telephone handset means your telecommunications company will not repair or replace it.
Contact your service provider for more information.
Know your usage patterns and find out which service plan best meets your needs
The pricing structure of your service plan should suit the ways you use your phone or Internet connection. For example, some fixed line telephone plans offer higher call rates with lower line rental charges. If your phone use is low, these types of plans may be the best option and there is a range of product and services.
Websites such as www.phonechoice.com.au provide a free service that allows you to compare plans from different service providers and make a more informed choice.
It may also be cheaper to make calls to mobile phones from your mobile rather than from your home phone, because call charges from a fixed to a mobile phone are usually higher than mobile-to-mobile.
Understand the terms and conditions of your contract and be aware of the costs of additional services
Most large telecommunications companies use a standard contract for household and small business customers known as a standard form of agreement (SFOA). Usually, only a summary of this agreement is presented to consumers before purchase.
It is important to read through this document and ask your service provider questions about the service you are signing up for. A particular area of concern might be charges for additional services such as call waiting or voicemail, and fees levied for early disconnection of services.
Products and services for managing usage and product spending
Most telecommunications service providers have products and services to help you manage your usage and spending on the phone and Internet. However, fees may be charged for these services. Contact your service provider for more information.
Please note: not all service providers offer the products and services listed below.
Pre-paid cards for fixed telephone, mobile and Internet services are widely available. These provide a straightforward way of managing your telecommunications usage and spending. You may also find that it costs less to pay for your service this way.
Bill frequency, itemisation and account monitoring
Most service providers allow you to monitor your usage with shorter billing periods and more detailed billing information. Check with your service provider to see if they can issue your bill more frequently or itemise your calls in greater detail.
Some telecommunications providers give you the ability to monitor your bill at any stage throughout the billing cycle, using the Internet, an SMS message or a call to customer service. Knowing how much is on your bill already may help you manage your phone use more effectively.
Most service providers give you the option of barring certain types of calls, for example, higher cost calls such as premium rate (190), long distance or international calls.
Call control using a PIN
Some service providers give you the option to have your telephone service PIN-protected to ensure that the owner of the account (who holds the PIN) can prevent unauthorised use of the telephone.
Incoming calls only
Residential customers with low incomes may choose to have access to incoming calls only, which enables them to remain contactable by telephone but unable to make outgoing calls apart from emergency calls to 000. With an incoming-only service you are unable to accept reverse-charge calls.
Multiple numbers for share houses
Low-income households, where multiple phone users share a single phone service, can arrange for sub-accounts, which means that each person is responsible for their own spending on telephone calls. However, someone must still be responsible for the total account.
This service is accessed by entering a short account code before making calls. Call costs are itemised separately to each service on the telephone bill. There is usually an additional monthly fee for using the service.
Pre-set spend level alert
A budgeting tool that works in a similar way to pre-paid services is the pre-set spend level alert. With this service, your telecommunications provider notifies you when your spending reaches your pre-set level and you can reduce or stop your phone use to avoid overstepping your budget.
Telecommunications providers often offer discounts to customers who receive Australian Government income support, such as a pension or allowance. This discount usually applies to line rental, calls and, in some cases, services such as call control using PINs.
Time extension to pay bill
If you know you will have difficulty paying your bill on time, contact your service provider to see if it can be paid in instalments. Most providers have some arrangements for paying bills over time or extending due dates.
Telstra-only products and services for managing usage and spending
Telstra Bill Assistance Program
Several welfare agencies can provide consumers with Bill Assistance Certificates to assist in paying off Telstra bills following an assessment of eligibility for assistance. The welfare agencies involved include the St Vincent de Paul Society, The Salvation Army, The Smith Family and Anglicare Australia. Telstra does not hand out these certificates.
Where accommodation arrangements are unstable or there is difficulty maintaining access to a phone service, Message Box allows you to keep in touch with family, friends, carers and other callers. The service enables you to set up a personal message box to receive voice messages across Australia from most fixed phones or public payphones. The service is available through community agencies.
Telstra offers a service that links a freephone 1800 number to a home account, allowing you to call the account holder for little or no charge, because the call is charged to the home account. This service may be helpful if you make a lot of calls to a friend or relative in a better position to pay than you.
Credit management practices in the telcommunications industry
Telecommunications companies must comply with the industry code Telecommunications Consumer Protections code C628:2007, which sets minimum standards for credit management practices. Matters covered by the code include how service suspension and disconnection should be managed and responsible debt collection practices.
Making a complaint about how a service provider has dealt with your case of financial hardship
If you are dissatisfied with how your service provider has dealt with your case of financial hardship in paying your telecommunications account, you can complain to the service provider. If you are not satisfied with the outcome of your complaint, you can ask the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) to investigate it. The TIO will investigate it in line with the Telecommunications Consumer Protections code and work with the parties involved to reach a resolution to the dispute.
Government or charitable assistance if you’re experiencing financial hardship
Centrelink customers can nominate an amount to be regularly deducted from their Centrelink payment (minimum $20.00 a fortnight) to pay towards their phone account. Centrepay is a voluntary advance payment option and is provided at no cost. Centrepay for telephone bills is only available from certain providers. You should check whether your telephone service provider supports this service.
If you are on a limited or fixed income, Centrepay may help you budget for essential expenses such as private rent, electricity, water and telephone.
Centrelink Special Benefit Telephone Allowance
You may be eligible for a quarterly Centrelink Special Benefit Telephone Allowance if you are experiencing significant financial hardship and have a Commonwealth Pensioner Concession Card or a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card.
For more information, contact Centrelink on (free call) 1800 050 004 or see the Centrelink website.
Emergency financial assistance
Welfare agencies often provide emergency relief and advice, including financial planning, to families and individuals in financial difficulty. The Australian Charities website has a list of welfare organisations that you may wish to contact.
Seeking the advice of a financial counsellor
In addition to seeking assistance to manage your spending on telecommunications, you may also want to meet with a financial counsellor. A financial counsellor’s services might include helping you create a personal budget, providing advice on paying back creditors and bankruptcy, assisting with applications for government welfare assistance and giving you information about other support services such as legal aid.
Financial counselling services are generally provided by community organisations at no cost and any information you provide will be kept confidential.
Contact a financial counsellor
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) lists the following financial counselling organisations on its website:
Australian Capital Territory
Care Financial Counselling Service
Telephone: 02 6257 1788
New South Wales
Financial Counsellors Association of NSW
Telephone: 0500 888 079
Telephone:1800 808 488
Anglicare Financial Counselling Service
Telephone: 08 8948 2700 or 08 8985 0000
Credit Help Line
Telephone:1300 887 400
Financial First Aid
1800 007 007
Uniting Care Wesley
Telephone: 08 8202 5180
Northern Community Legal Service
Telephone: 08 8281 6911
Child Youth and Family Services
Telephone: 08 8226 7000
The South Australia Financial Counselling Association's website lists financial counsellors in South Australia.
Anglicare Financial Counselling Service
Telephone: 03 6234 3510
Hobart Community Legal Service
Telephone: 03 6223 2500 or 1800 232 500
Financial and Consumer Rights Council
Telephone: 03 9663 2000
Telephone: 03 9602 3800 or 1800 803 800
The Financial & Consumer Rights Council lists all financial counsellors in Victoria.
Financial Counsellors Resource Project
Telephone: 08 9221 9411
Consumer Credit Legal Service
Telephone: 08 9481 7665
Financial Counsellors Association of WA
Telephone: 08 9325 1617
Some welfare organisations also provide financial counselling services:
The Salvation Army
Telephone: 1300 36 36 22
The Smith Family
Telephone: 02 9085 7222
Kildonan Child and Family Services
Telephone: 03 9419 0222
The ACMA has fact sheets on a range of topics.
Please note: this document is intended as a guide only and should not be relied on as legal advice or regarded as a substitute for legal advice in individual cases.