Open letter to iBurst

31 July 2009

Iterations: the modem, my other self and the missing debit order found

A friend remembered my previous nic at MyADSL and I have been rooting around in those old pseudonymic posts of mine. It’s quite funny how things can turn out.

But then it struck me that the (UTD) modem’s after-life reiterates the central starting point of my gripe: that I gave notice, my account was closed, with no debt at the end of December.

I managed to sell the modem only in late February 2007, two months after my account was closed. iBurst blocks modems when the account assigned to the modem is still in arrears. So, if someone closes an account, but is in arrears, that person won’t have a working modem to sell. The modem buyer normally requests the modem’s ID number from the seller and first checks with iBurst that the modem has been cleared before buying it.

X, who bought my modem, indeed followed this procedure, confirmed that no money was owed on the modem and came to collect the modem from my house. I never heard from him again. I.e. the modem was in working order in both senses of the word. It had been cleared by iBurst; the original account had no arrears.

In the early evening two days ago (29 July), I finally received a proper explanation about the glitch that has followed me like a hound from hell. In a telephone conversation, Jannie van Zyl (iBurst CEO) told me that iBurst records show a returned debit order for my account. It’s a simple explanation, and the arithmetic adds up. Why could no one tell me this back in 2007?

The problem, though, is that my records do not show a returned debit. I had sufficient funds, the debit ran. And it was not returned.

This is cause for anxiety. What happened to that money? Is it possible that somewhere in cyberspace this money has been siphoned off? On which side? What is the electronic system used between iBurst and banks (in my case Nedbank)? Is it secure?

Furthermore, I notice that a few days before the unsuspectedly high debit order ran, I did not have enough funds in my account to cover that debit order. There was enough to cover the month-to-month subscription for my notice period, but certainly not for a debit in the region of R4 800.00.

After my notice, and after that debit, I went to my Nedbank branch to make sure that iBurst would have no further access to my account – I went to close the monthly debit order. I cannot remember the specifics, but the Nedbank representative told me that because of the payment system that iBurst was using, I could not cancel the debit orders; it was up to iBurst to stop them from their side. (Does anyone have information or insight into this? I understand that iBurst customers with other banks have had no problems cancelling debit orders.)

I have not gone through my account with any forensic detail, but as far as I can remember, I was not debited by iBurst again following December 2006. But the whole billing and accounting system, for iBurst specifically, and online agreements in general, opens up scary possibilities.

First, it was ridiculously easy to open the iBurst account. The agreement to the debit order happens online between the customer and iBurst and you consent to iBurst debiting your account for fixed and agreed amounts. iBurst then has the power to debit your account, to which you have agreed. In other words, your consent to the agreement depends on great trust in the company’s integrity; in the narrow, technical sense, the integrity of their accounting systems, but also in the broader meaning of that word.

But in the case of Nedbank as per my experience (perhaps it’s different now, 3 years on), you cannot claim that power back. In the case of a disputation that may arise, you are at the mercy of iBurst to stop debiting your account.

Secondly, in the event of accounting errors on iBurst’s side – a not uncommon occurrence for several years now – how can you trust that your iBurst debit orders are in good hands? That errors are noticed and corrected timeously? If there is an error on their side, or on the banks’ side, who pays the penalty for returned debit orders?

Many iBurst customers complain about double billing – debit orders running twice. Could there be a problem in the software, which erroneously tags debits as returned, thus necessitating a second debit? And this glitch masks the problem, iBurst accounting can’t trace the problem and customers struggle endlessly to have their accounts reconciled? Or is the second debit a result of malfeasant hacking?

Van Zyl also asked me to fax him my bank statements for December 2006 and January 2007. Before I did so yesterday, 30 July, he called again to say that iBurst had found the missing debit order. He didn’t explain in any detail, but it seems that somewhere in the transmission between the banking software and the accounting software iBurst was using 3 years ago, the debit order was erroneously flagged.

So there’s a forensic resolution, but it is cold comfort that it took nearly 3 years to discover this glitch. What in the software triggered this contradiction? How thoroughly is software tested before implementation? Who decides on which software to use? Does iBurst have a tendering process for the provision of their administrative software?

Given that complaints about accounting problems persist, how good is the ‘new’ software they are using?

Questions remain.

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