Confused Users Keep Racking Up Ridiculous 3G Bills, Wireless Carriers Keep Helping Them

from the your-phone-bill-should-not-require-a-second-mortgage dept

We've seen no limit to stories over the years about wireless customers (including a few semi-famous ones) who wind up with fairly insane wireless broadband bills for any number of reasons. Usually the stories involve someone traveling overseas and not understanding the roaming charges and overages involved, though sometimes the users don't even need to leave port to find themselves hit with a $27,000 3G bill. The latest story of this type (via the Consumerist) involves a user getting a $7,865.84 Verizon Wireless bill after taking his Mifi portable 3G hotspot on a business trip to Tel Aviv. In this case however, the user called Verizon before the trip, studied the overage penalties, and still wound up using 350,000 kb of bandwidth before concluding it was Verizon who screwed up:
"The ugly truth is that upon investigating the issue, I found a number of things could have been done by Verizon to protect me as a consumer. They may not mention them outright, but they are there. The fact that these things were not done can only lead me to assume that Verizon would rather their consumers "understand" as little as possible about their TOS.'"

Except as a consumer, it's his responsibility to read the find print on his contract and understand the limitations and penalties of his plan. The user studied the charges, spoke with representatives -- even seemed to have at least a base understanding of what he was going to be charged per kilobyte -- and then chose to use expensive 3G data on an overseas trip anyway. Consumer responsibility and research plays a big part of the equation.

That said, we've been saying for a long time now that these bills demonstrate the fact that carriers aren't doing a particularly good job making service limits clear or educating customers. Many consumers (more than you would think) can't tell the difference between a kilobyte and a lemur, and Verizon's math skills on this front aren't always reliable to begin with. While most carriers have some kind of mechanism in place to help notify users of excessive usage, carriers haven't done a great job notifying users when their bill starts to go nuclear (like many credit card companies do when a large charge appears on your card) or making overages clear. Fortunately, carriers often agree to slash these bills -- but usually only after they receive media attention.

In the UK, where they've seen the same kind of insane 3G bills, regulators have jumped in and addressed the problem by first capping roaming charges -- but then by also requiring (as of July 1) that carriers allow users to set a monthly maximum cap that limits how much they can spend on data each month. Consumers get an automated alert as they approach 80% of that total, then their service is temporarily suspended when the user crosses the spending cap. If users don't choose a limit, a limit of $68 per month is set for them (that's only data and doesn't include voice minutes or other bill totals). Of course here in the States carriers aren't going to want to voluntarily employ tools that reduce how much money they can make off of confused users, and will fight any regulation that limits how much they can charge. So nothing changes, and story after story emerges about users whose phone bills resemble the GDP of small countries.

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Filed Under: bills, ridiculous, roaming, wireless

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  1. icon
    Hugh Mann (profile), 24 Apr 2010 @ 8:53am

    At least provide a reliable tool so I can see the usage...

    I travel abroad frequently, and have been hit with several large mobile bills (mostly for data).

    I actually understand that it's my responsibility to understand the usage charges, and I took steps to reduce my data usage while traveling. However, the bills always seemed to be much higher than I expected. I would sometimes get a call or text message from my provider, warning me that my usage seemed high - but this didn't come until my running bill had hit a figure that was four to five times my normal bill.

    I spoke with a customer service rep, and asked for two things:

    1. the ability to set my own limit for when they should call me about extreme bills, and

    2. a tool that keeps a running tally of my data usage, so I can see for myself when to turn the data connection off.

    My provider was not able to provide either of these things, especially in the case of $2, because there is apparently often a lag of up to several days in reporting data usage while roaming internationally.

    Why this should be the case ten years into the 21st Century is beyond me.

    On the data "counting" tool, there are lots of kilobytes zipping back and forth that you can't see. I can see an email, and how big it is. However, I don't know how many kbs were involved in setting up the connection, inquiring, logging out, etc., etc., etc. - all those "background" processes. I don't doubt that they use kbs, too, I just can't "see" them, so they don't show up in my own tallies.

    I think there are third-party tools availble for this, but it really seems a good service provider would provide at least SOME rudimentary way for its customers to track their usage.


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