Monday, February 1, 2010

The $16,379 Phone Bill: Is There a Better Way?

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:
— Letty Soriano and her 16-year-old daughter, Janel, made a pact for their trip to Dubai to limit their international roaming charges on the girl’s cell phone: Janel could text-message her friends but not call them. If she got lost, Janel could call or text her mom.

Surfing the Internet on her smart phone was left to Janel’s discretion. As Soriano understood it from a phone call with her carrier, there would be no additional cost for that, other than the standard charges included in the family’s data plan.
But two days after returning from visiting her sister in Dubai, Soriano’s service was suspended and she received a message to call T-Mobile. She learned that her daughter had racked up $16,379 in data-roaming charges accrued by surfing the Internet.
“I couldn’t sleep for two weeks,” Soriano said. “I was walking around like a dead person.”

I recently went on a trip to Mexico. I had no idea how much it would cost to call a local number from my cell phone, call a number in the United States, send a text message, or use the 3G data network. So, I left my phone off the entire trip.

Perhaps I should have researched this before going, but collecting information is costly. As a result of ignorance, two things occur:

1) Many people may be unsure of the rates and thus not use their phones, even if they would have found the charges reasonable.
2) Others may dramatically underestimate how much things cost and end up with a surprise phone bill in the range of hundreds or thousands of dollars. Much of this money will go uncollected, and some only after arduous customer support headaches and hefty legal fees. In many cases, the companies offer to deeply discount the charges to appease irate customers. If nothing else, the customer relationship and image of the company are strained, even if the company is charging within its published guidelines.

The cellphone companies and their customers both lose under either scenario. However, in the age of smartphones, why can't a dialog box pop up notifying us of the impending charges when we try to use our phone internationally? I think many people would welcome this disclosure and transparency. Even on a standard phone, a free text message could appear saying "To complete your call from your current location, rates of 59 cents per minute will apply. To accept and place your call, press the pound sign."

I can see a looming legal issue under this approach, though: customers will now have a precedent to cite when complaining about "surprises" on their domestic bills, even if they knowingly used expensive features and are just trying to game the system.


Adam Gurri said...

We have a long way to go when it comes to making it easy to go from country to country with your cell phone. I think a big part of the problem here, even for an international carrier like T-Mobile, is that carriers frequently have to make deals with other carriers in the countries abroad in order to let their customers use the other carriers' networks; this probably costs them something which is why they charge more for their customers to take advantage of it.

Don't know that for a fact though. It is, as you say, very confusing.