Customer Discovers T-Mobile's 'Unlimited' SMS Plan Not So Unlimited Thanks To $26,000 Bill

from the well-that-clears-that-up dept

It's getting rather ridiculous to keep seeing companies offer "unlimited" services, only to later find out that they're not unlimited at all. Yakko Warner points out that this just happened to one guy in Pennsylvania, who along with a friend, tried to beat the world record for most text messages in a month (182,000) by messaging each other back and forth. They figured they were fine, because they each had unlimited text messaging plans, but after one of them sent 140,000 messages, he received a bill for $26,000 and learned that, for T-Mobile, "unlimited" actually means 100,000, and those additional 40,000 messages cost quite a pretty penny. To T-Mobile's credit, the company has agreed to let the charge slide, but it makes you wonder why it has that cap in the first place if it's advertising the service as unlimited (and then ignoring the cap when people pass it). Why not actually remove the limit?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Tgeigs, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 7:43am

    In related news...

    1. Democracy foisted upon others by Amerika: In defense of the war in Iraq, President Bush proclaimed once again that we have brought Democracy to Iraq and the middle east. When asked about the coincidence of Iraqi elections tending to coincide with American backed politicians, he shrugged and said, "We simply offered strategery advice to them." When then asked why American government refused to work with Hamas, despite the fact that they were democratically elected, he said, "Listen, when we asked the Palestinians to take an active role in Democracy, we didn't mean that they should elect whoever they want. Democracy means electing the people WE want."

     

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  2.  
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    TheStuipdOne, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 7:44am

    Consumer Fraud

    Wouldn't this qualify as consumer fraud? Unlimited mean there is no limit. A company should not be allowed to redefine words to suit its advertising model.

    But since this is allowed I'll sell you an unlimited cell phone plan for voice, text, and data for just $5. I'll make all of my money charging you $1 per minute over the unlimited cap of 1 minute, $2 for each text after your second, and $10 foer each and every bit after your first 5

     

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  3.  
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    Mark, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 7:45am

    Blown out of proportion

    I've seen this story in multiple places, and I think it is being blown out of proportion.

    The system had a "limit" of 100000, before charging customers per text. this is probably a vestige from when there was no unlimited plan. T-mobile probably assumed no one really would go over 100000 texts in a months, so they thought they were safe. Customers can send all the texts they want, and very little has to be done to have the billing system support the users.

    This was done because it was a much simpler (ie cost effective) solution than upgrading the software to allow for unlimited. They just put in a cap similar to the other plans, but made it so high that any normal usage wouldn't trigger the overages.

    Now these two guys come along, and blow past the number. After getting a surprising bill and contacting t-mobile, they admit our bad, it's how we set up our system, and your account will be credited. Now t-mobile has to go back and update the billing system, or set the new limit to even more ridiculous number (like 10 billion).

    This is not the same as the data plans that were offered as unlimited, but really had heavy restrictions.

     

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  4.  
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    John Doe, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 7:53am

    Re: Blown out of proportion

    This is quite likely the explanation. The system was designed with limits. The limit was set at 5 digits, so it was set to 99,999 messages before billing kicks in. If T-Mobile didn't put up a fuss then no harm, no foul.

     

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  5.  
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    Brooks, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:23am

    Re: Blown out of proportion

    Yep, seems like the most plausible theory here. If T-Mobile had secret caps that they were hoping to use to generate revenue, why waive the charges in this case?

    Seems like tempest in a teapot to me. Can we talk about the ways that cell phone companies are genuinely dishonest instead of getting worked up over what looks like a technical snafu that they cheerfully fixed?

     

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  6.  
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    Karl, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:24am

    Charging $26,000 for a service that costs virtually nothing to provide should probably be "blown out of proportion."

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:26am

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    You didn't read the article did you. They've reversed the charges, but are still investigating it. They also claimed he was violating his terms of service by...well...using it.

    There were times, back when we used modems, when I would leave my second line connected for days. No doubt these days that would be a violation of my terms for service because even though I had "unlimited" use of the phone, it wasn't really unlimited.

     

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  8.  
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    WarOtter (profile), Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:27am

    Re: In related news...

    Ummm you put your soapbox in the wrong room. Please relocate it to the DILLIGAF room.

     

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  9.  
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    jonnyq, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:28am

    As often as this comes up, it's baffling that companies are still allowed to send bills like this.

    There should be some sort policy in place that if a bill runs up to a certain about (e.g. twice the user's monthly bill) then the user gets a courtesy call.

    The idea that you can accidentally leave an iphone on "auto update" or overuse an unlimited service and get a bill over $1000 is absurd.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:31am

    What is amazing is that the guy's wife has not already filed for divorce.

     

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    noah, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:34am

    Re: Blown out of proportion

    This is a technical glitch. I can tell you exactly what happened. Someone tells the programmer for the billing system "We need an unlimited plan", the programmer, being lazy, thinks "The 'limit' in an integer. Changing the type or handling the corner cases by trying to implement a special 'unlimited' value would take hours or even days. No way anyone could go over 100,000 in 1 month..." Bam. And he was almost right. You know what the solution almost certainly is? They added a zero. No one will go over a million. But if they do? T-mobile does exactly what they did here, they drop the charges.

    T-mobile did the right thing here, but that's not a story is it? So we have to create outrage by emphasizing the fact that 2 guys got a bill for $26,000. Oh noes! A billing error! The end of freedom and consumer rights!

    Oh, but we mentioned that they didn't have to pay (after a paragraph about how ridiculous it is), and didn't have to even fight it, so we're not biased. We're not a hype machine like the rest of the media. Seriously Techdirt, apply your usually spot on criticism of the media to yourself.

     

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  12.  
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    SoreThumbs, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:37am

    That's a lot of messages

    182,000 text messages a month? That's 5,871 messages per day if the month has 31 days.

    If we assume that they could be awake and "textable" for 16-hours each day (8 hours for sleeping, bathing, etc), then they'd need to text 367 messages per hour. That's 6.1/minute, or about one message every 9 seconds. Wow.

    Un. Freaking. Believable. Some people truly need to get out more.

     

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  13.  
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    RadioEmotion, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:42am

    100K/Mo. effectively unlimited IMHO

    That's a little less than 2.5 messages/minute.

    @John Doe: Yeah, that is the most plausible explanation I can think of. IT legacy strikes again.

    Still, unlimited should mean unlimited with no qualms.

     

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  14.  
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    R. Miles, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:42am

    Misuse and abuse?

    How in the hell is either applicable when both parties understood the term "unlimited"?

    I smell a lawsuit, even if the charges were dismissed. It's false advertising.

    To me, that's the real abuse and misuse in play here.

     

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  15.  
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    David T, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:46am

    Massive bills as a sign of poor checks

    How can a company reasonably push out a 10k bill on an account that normally runs 60 bucks a month? Maybe the cellular networks should learn from the CC companies and call when a user breaks a (reasonable) spending threshold to make sure everything is cool.

    Makes too much sense to be usable, I know...

     

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  16.  
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    Neverhood, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:46am

    Problems with certain concepts

    I guess that the old-school companies just have a problem with concepts like "free" or "unlimited" and it is only the advertising agencies they hire that understand it, and tells the companies that it sells the product, but fails to elaborate.

     

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  17.  
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    Michael B, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:47am

    Same Old Story

    When I signed up for Comcast cable internet, it was advertised as "unlimited". When they imposed caps, I complained, and their response? "Unlimited" means "unlimited access, 24/7", NOT unlimited use. These dirtbags can redefine things at any time and get away with it.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 8:50am

    What is the difference between advertising and a campaign promise?

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:00am

    What is the difference between advertising and a campaign promise?

    There's no law against breaking a campaign promise.

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:01am

    Re:

    just shut up

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:02am

    Re: In related news...

    you sir are a fucking idiot

     

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  22.  
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    Jeffry Houser (profile), Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:06am

    Yakko Warner? Seriously?

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:10am

    Re: In related news...

    WTF? Thats right! T-Mobil's unlimited plan isn't unlimited because of Bush and the Iraq war! Fucking troll.

     

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  24.  
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    SA, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:14am

    Re: In related news...

    Wonderful insight. North Korea has elections also. Maybe we should work on their nuclear energy infrastructure with them. It will bring peace. By the way kook aid... Bush isn't in office anymore. Obama won. Maybe he will talk to Hamas for you.

     

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  25.  
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    Neil, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:21am

    Nothing new

    In the UK every "unlimited" plan has a little asterisks next to it saying fair use policy applies. They aren't so generous as America, it's usually about 2000 messages. "Unlimited" data plans are even worse, they are extremely limited. A clear misuse of language, but it's been going on for ages.

     

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  26.  
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    Tgeigs, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:22am

    Re: Re: In related news...

    Haha, kook aid. Best...insult...ever.

    And I was just trying to draw a humorous parralel between unlimited not being unlimited and democracy not being democracy. I think I'll give myself a FAIL and move on :)

     

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  27.  
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    Robb Topolski (profile), Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:37am

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    Exactly my thinking. I noticed that my "unlimited" Verizon Wireless voice actually gave me 99,999 minutes in a month (about two month's worth of 24x7 usage). After that, it was 25c per minute. It is functionally unlimited, as with 3-way calling and perhaps some other call-forwarding tricks, I probably could exceed 99,999 minutes somehow.

    What disappoints me about the event outlined in the original article (linked in the above) is that T-Mobile chewed him out for abuse. What a better story this would have been for T-Mobile had they congratulated him for the attempt and stirred up buzz. Idiots!

     

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  28.  
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    Robb Topolski (profile), Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:41am

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    Noah,

    A technical glitch would result in charges dropped with an apology. This guy got read the Riot Act, instead.

    T-Mobile deserves to have their nose rubbed in it.

    Robb

     

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  29.  
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    Robb Topolski (profile), Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:41am

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    Noah,

    A technical glitch would result in charges dropped with an apology. This guy got read the Riot Act, instead.

    T-Mobile deserves to have their nose rubbed in it.

    Robb

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:53am

    This whole store is dumb

    To T-Mobile's credit, the company has agreed to let the charge slide, but it makes you wonder why it has that cap in the first place if it's advertising the service as unlimited (and then ignoring the cap when people pass it). Why not actually remove the limit?

    If you knew how the backend systems work, you would have known know that operators still have to enter a (get this) a number into the billing system. It's quantifyable, and thusly, billable. They just expand to the software limit, and then in odd situations like this, do a manual review, override and credit to the account.

    This is just like Robb points out with Verizon's 99,999 weekend minutes. What Robb doesn't know is that all wireless companies use the same backend system software. And Yes, Robb probably could do it through fancy manuvering with 3 and 4 way calling. But Verizon would have had to react the same way. No company is immune.

     

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  31.  
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    Chargone, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:55am

    ya know, with all the stupid stuff that the NZ government pulls from time to time, and all the stupid things businesses do here from time to time...

    i am still somehow amazed by the levels of stupidity one can find in other countries. i may not agree with how things are done here a lot of the time, but I'm still glad to be here and not somewhere else.

    there are so many things wrong with this whole situation, it's not funny. I'm sure there's at least three points where this would have been caught here, legally... and that's even after ignoring the 'no harm, no foul' of them fixing it meaning it probably wouldn't even rate mention except as a curiosity 'hey, people, this weird thing happened! strange, huh?'.

    reasonably sure that, generally speaking, if someone here were to read 'unlimited X for $Y', it would mean 'there's no limits! at all! as long as you pay your bill!'... if there were a limit for data based stuff, it'd be connection speed. given that the connection speed is useually stated...

    ok, i lost my point. well, the one that was actually relevant, anyway. meh, have some ramblings anyway.

     

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  32.  
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    The infamous Joe, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 9:57am

    Re: Re: Re: In related news...

    ..you know that America is not a democracy, right?

    Let me polish up up that "FAIL" for ya before you go. :P

    (I keed, I keed.)

     

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  33.  
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    Luci, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:12am

    Re:

    Well, to be fair the charge is approximately $0.65 per message, since the $26,000 charge for around 40,000 messages.
    Still a programming error. How many messages do YOU send in a month?

     

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  34.  
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    John Doe, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:17am

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    A programmer is not given the authority to set these limits. Most likely, someone on the business side said that the limit should be 100,000 because nobody would every surpass that. So it is lazy management, not programmers making the choice.

    Besides, using a 6 digit number instead of 5 is so simple that it wouldn't even take a minute much less hours or days as you mention.

     

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  35.  
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    Tgeigs, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:28am

    Re: Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    Anyone remember that Coke promotion with the Coca Cola points, with the joke advertising that w/enough of them you could buy a Harrier Jet? Then some jackass went out and traded for the advertised amount of points on Ebay etc., then demanded his Harrier? I mean, it's funny, but I wonder about the motivation for doing these types of things.

     

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  36.  
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    JT, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:38am

    "And I was just trying to draw a humorous parralel between unlimited not being unlimited and democracy not being democracy. I think I'll give myself a FAIL and move on :)"

    We're a Republic. The real FAIL in in your spelling ability. "parallel".

     

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  37.  
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    Tgeigs, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:48am

    Re:

    Agreed. I will give myself several floggings.

     

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  38.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:52am

    Re:

    Honestly? Because technically, all a politician can promise is to see if the promise is feasible and if it is, he/she can *try* to get it passed wherever it needs to go. Its impossible for a politician to actually make a guaranteed promise.

     

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  39.  
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    Jason, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:56am

    Re: That's a lot of messages

    "Some people truly need to get out more"

    Maybe, maybe not. These guys are those guys you see talking to one person and texting another at the same time without a break in thought.

    Some people just have multi-threading capabilities.

     

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  40.  
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    Jason, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 10:58am

    Re: Yakko Warner? Seriously?

    Exactly what I was thinking.

     

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  41.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 11:03am

    Re: This whole store is dumb

    The only reason an operator would still have to enter in a number is through a flaw in the system. The system wasn't designed for unlimited, but it was probably just not cost effective to patch it. To say its impossible however is ridiculous. You obviously do not write software.

     

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  42.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 11:08am

    Re: That's a lot of messages

    Actually, its about half that. Assuming they texted only each other and sent the same amount, that would only be 91,000 texts per person. So, they were only each sending about 3 texts per minute.

     

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  43.  
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    Yakko Warner, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 11:12am

    Re: Yakko Warner? Seriously?

    Sometimes. Other times, I'm not quite so serious. ;)

     

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  44.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 11:14am

    Re: In related news...

    what an extreme left wing idiot....don't suppose you have a link to a news article containing the quotes you used???? Try and stick to the topic!

     

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  45.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 11:19am

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    You mean like their "heads I win, tails you lose" billing model?

    That is, you pay for a certain number of minutes, but if you don't use them, you're still charged the same. But if you go over that amount you get charged more.

    This is a very dispicable practice. Contrast with the much more honest electric/gas model of "pay for what you use".

    But since all the US carriers do it, you can't simply choose one with a less abusive business model.

     

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  46.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 12:02pm

    Re: Re: In related news...

    Please see #26/#37, apology already submitted.

     

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  47.  
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    PRMan, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 12:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    "Anyone remember that Coke promotion with the Coca Cola points, with the joke advertising that w/enough of them you could buy a Harrier Jet? Then some jackass went out and traded for the advertised amount of points on Ebay etc., then demanded his Harrier? I mean, it's funny, but I wonder about the motivation for doing these types of things."

    Pepsi's advertising department will be disappointed in your comment:

    Pepsi Harrier Jet lawsuit

     

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  48.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 12:17pm

    Americans are so lazy

    It is NOT possible to provide a truly unlimited service in any domain. Americans are lazy and stupid, and they don't want to track their usage. That is why companies provide "unlimited" services such as internet, phone and SMS.

    It would be nice if the companies provide non-exploiting pay-as-you-go plans (10 cent/SMS doesnt make any sense when you provide unlimited service for $5 and average user sends 1000 SMSs).

     

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  49.  
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    batch, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 12:37pm

    I think they probably sent the bill just to see if he would pay. Some people do just pay whatever amount the bill claims they owe.

    Admittedly, $26,000 is ludicrous, but then again, it was a corporation doing the billing. Whatever humans involved with shipping (ha!, not mailing) the bill probably assumed it had thrown a flag and someone higher up still allowed the bill to be sent. Too bad common sense never intervened.

     

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  50.  
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    Pangolin (profile), Apr 28th, 2009 @ 12:41pm

    Not so strange

    As someone who has worked on related systems - I can tell you that this is easy to explain. Tmobile used to have plans that allowed a certain number of free messages then charged for the overage. That's OK. Now comes the word that there is an unlimited plan. The easiest way to change the billing system is to create a new "unlimited" tier. This tier will be at some large number that "no one" will never exceed. Oh say - 100000. Well, I guess we should have made it 900000. Oh well.

     

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  51.  
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    Tgeigs, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 1:25pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    What the hell is Pepsi?

    LOL.

     

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  52.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:07pm

    Re: Blown out of proportion

    The system had a "limit" of 100000, before charging customers per text.

    OK, so much for stating the obvious.

    this is probably a vestige from when there was no unlimited plan. T-mobile probably assumed no one really would go over 100000 texts in a months, so they thought they were safe.

    Do you have a source for that or are you just making stuff up in a lame attempt to be an apologist for T-mobile?

    And it still didn't keep them from trying to collect, did it?

     

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  53.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:10pm

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    This is a technical glitch. I can tell you exactly what happened.

    Oh really? What's your inside source on this case?

     

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  54.  
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    Mark, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:33pm

    Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    My source was logic, common sense, and knowledge in the actual design and implementation of these types of systems, plus the information from this article (http://www.wgal.com/money/19238949/detail.html) when I originally heard about this last week.

    I'm not being an apologist, just a realist. If T-mobile was trying to collect the money for going over the limit on the unlimited plan, then I would be the first to say False Advertising, and sue, and be fined by the FTC, among others.

     

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  55.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:34pm

    Re: Re:

    Its impossible for a politician to actually make a guaranteed promise.

    Yah, it's impossible for anybody to guarantee anything because you never know for sure what the future will hold. There fore all guarantees are null and void.

     

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  56.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:43pm

    Marketing

    This reminds me of the Dilbert strip wherein Dilbert gets temporarily transferred to the marketing department. Upon his arrival there he is given a container in which to store his soon-to-be-removed conscience and told to "Remember, it's not lying, it's marketing!"

     

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  57.  
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    Terry, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:44pm

    This is like free health care. It is free if the treatment is cheap. If the treatment is expensive then they will let you die a slow painful death like they do in Canada, England, etc.

     

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  58.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 2:46pm

    Re: Re: This whole store is dumb

    To say its impossible however is ridiculous. You obviously do not write software.

    So why should ignorance of a subject keep anyone from spouting off about it?

     

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  59.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 3:29pm

    Re:

    "This is like free health care. It is free if the treatment is cheap. If the treatment is expensive then they will let you die a slow painful death like they do in Canada, England, etc."

    No, you can still go to a private doctor, if you can afford it. Just like in the US (where they let you die a slow painful death whether the treatment is expensive or not if you're poor).

     

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  60.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2009 @ 3:34pm

    Re: Re: Re: Blown out of proportion

    My source was logic, common sense, and knowledge in the actual design and implementation of these types of systems, plus the information from this article (http://www.wgal.com/money/19238949/detail.html) when I originally heard about this last week.

    OK, so you're basically just making crap up.

    I'm not being an apologist, just a realist.

    Bull. Do you own stock, or what?

    If T-mobile was trying to collect the money for going over the limit on the unlimited plan, then I would be the first to say False Advertising, and sue, and be fined by the FTC, among others.

    Obviously not. More bull. T-mobile did attempt to collect. Yet, you're still apologizing for them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  61.  
    identicon
    Dylan, Apr 30th, 2009 @ 11:07am

    who's got your back?

    Mike, I can't begin to imagine what it was like for that guy to get a $26K phone bill, especially if he actually had a comprehensive plan with "unlimited" texting. Talk about shock! I get particularly riled when people are stuck with huge, often erroneous cell bills; I hear about this all the time because I work for the consumer advocacy website http://www.fixmycellbill.com, powered by a company called Validas, where we slash the average cell bill by 22 percent (not trying to spam or blatantly plug, but it's true). Consumers like the guy in Pennsylvania may not have been actively misled by their wireless providers, but this example seems to illustrate that cell plans are clearly not impervious to problematic charging and subsequently many “unlimited” plans remain vulnerable to significant usage. I could go on and on about how shifty these cell companies can be in their attempts to make you overpay. I'll mention that at Validas, we stop them and have currently put over $5,000,000 back in the pockets of consumers. You can check out Validas’s fixmycellbill.com in the national news media, seen recently on Good Morning America at http://www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=6887412&page=1.

    Good luck to everyone trying to cut your wireless expenses in this rough economy.

    Dylan

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  62.  
    identicon
    sdfsdfsd, Oct 11th, 2009 @ 9:09am

    tmobile cap

    Sounds alot like their Unlimited data with a 5 g cap.....
    Wonder how thats going to play out.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  63.  
    identicon
    i, Feb 19th, 2010 @ 8:57am

    Re: Americans are so lazy

    fuck you punk. you're lazy and stupid. @ least that's what your mom was mumbling last night. she had a hard time talking with 9 inches in her mouth.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  64.  
    identicon
    DoYourResearch, Feb 22nd, 2012 @ 9:18am

    Re: Blown out of proportion

    Actually, it really doesn't cost T-mobile anything to give you unlimited texting, because it doesn't cost them anything no matter how many texts get sent and received. So they don't lose anything whether the limit is 100,000 or it's truely 'unlimited'.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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