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AT&T Slaps Family With a $19,370 Cell Phone Bill 725

Posted by timothy
from the hearts-and-minds dept.
theodp writes "Mama, don't let your babies send e-mail and photos from Vancouver. A Portland family racked up nearly $20,000 in charges on their AT&T bill after their son headed north to Vancouver and used a laptop with an AirCard twenty-one times to send photos and e-mails back home. The family said they wished they would have received some kind of warning before receiving their chock-full-of-international-fees 200-page bill in the mail for $19,370. Guess they didn't read the fine print in that 'Stay connected whether you are traveling across town, the US, or the world' AT&T AirCard pitch. Hey, at least it wasn't $85,000."
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AT&T Slaps Family With a $19,370 Cell Phone Bill

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  • Apple? (Score:5, Informative)

    by dal20402 (895630) <dal20402.mac@com> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:41PM (#24904617) Journal

    And this is tagged "apple" why?

    This is not about an iPhone just because it's about AT&T.

  • by weston (16146) <westonsd&canncentral,org> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:45PM (#24904657) Homepage

    The branding "Aircard" is close enough to "Airport" some readers may assume it refers to Apple equipment instead of stuff manufactured by Sierra Wireless [sierrawireless.com].

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:4, Informative)

    by Twnki (1283800) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:47PM (#24904671)
    A high balance warning team that would manually evaluate out of pattern usage would be ideal in this situation. However even with a team in place or software to analyse usage, roaming usage on another provider or in another country may not be reported back in "realtime". There is often a delay in usage reporting when more than one company are involved.
  • Both parties stupid? (Score:3, Informative)

    by OverlordQ (264228) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:55PM (#24904757) Journal

    The AirCard allows users to connect to e-mail, the Internet and business applications while traveling, according to AT&T's Web site. On the Terry family's bill, they were charged international fees for the service.

    The Terry family said they asked an AT&T employee about the service before their son left the country. They said they were told nothing about international fees.

    Did they even ask about international fees?

    From the AT&T website about their plan.

    Rate Plan Details
    Included Data 5 GB
    Additional data $0.00048/KB
    Canadian Data $0.015/KB
    International Data $0.0195/KB

    So figure, $20k @ 1.5 cents a KB he transfered about a Gig. Looking at the video some of the sessions were a few hundred megs so I really can't find AT&T all that much at fault here that they didn't check the rates.

  • by puto (533470) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:57PM (#24904787) Homepage
    Roaming in other countries is not automactially enabled on the phones. Including Canada. You have to call and request it. The rep will try and sell you an add on plan that will make it less expensive while you are there, for calls or data, and then when you refuse they note they account. For when situations like this happen. Most people will not pay an extra ten bucks to cut the costs into 1/10 and figure they will only minimally use the phone. This always happens with kids. Kids figure they are home, and use the phone, and data card, like they are sitting in the computer room. You know what, send the pics when you get home, internet cafes are cheap, and the last thing i do when i am away from home is surf the web
  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:00PM (#24904833)

    You _are_agreeing to anything - and everything. One of the contract terms in almost all contracts is that they can change the terms. Granted, they must notify you and they aren't allowed to charge ETFs if you cancel because of it. But you are not allowed to 'lock-in' services just because they 'lock-in' two years of service. In short, you can't hold them to their own contract so long as they 'notify' you.

  • by puto (533470) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:00PM (#24904839) Homepage
    As I have posted before as a former ATT employee, who handled escalations. International roaming is a feature you have to call and add to the account, they make you aware of the fees, and try to sell you a package that will reduce themm and when you do not buy it, they note it. People in this case screw themselves.
  • Re:Too bad.. (Score:2, Informative)

    by puto (533470) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:02PM (#24904871) Homepage
    But the problem is that to enable international roaming, you have to call ATT, they add it, and make you aware of the charges, it is all noted in the client file. They even push a add on that you can cancel after your trip that will lower the fees. Dumbasses refuse itm and stuff like this happens. When I roamed on the BellSouth Network in Colombia SA, I did not expect to call for free.
  • by shitzu (931108) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:05PM (#24904901)

    Linux is a UNIX-based OS, and my favourite distro of it is Macintosh OS X

    OSX is not Linux. I guess you could even call it BSD before you start calling it Linux.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:09PM (#24904945)

    The iPhone, at least, has a "Disable Data Roaming" option... of course, they probably had that clue shoved down their throats by Apple. :)

    Ummm, no. The first iphone had international data roaming turned on by default. And since the iphone never really turns off, many suckers ran up large bills when traveling internationally since the iphone doesn't have push email and checks every 5 minutes or so, which results in a large data bill even if you don't send or receive a single email.

    The second iphone has international data roaming disabled by default.

  • by jabithew (1340853) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:10PM (#24904963)

    In the European Union, thanks to Commission intervention, mobile firms *have* to text you to inform you of rates whenever you arrive in a new state.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:21PM (#24905069)

    Linux is a UNIX-based OS, and my favourite distro of it is Macintosh OS X

    OSX is not Linux. I guess you could even call it BSD before you start calling it Linux.

    *whoosh*

  • Re:Disgusted (Score:3, Informative)

    by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968&gmail,com> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:37PM (#24905223) Journal

    That is because they hire lawyers like this guy [yahoo.com]. but seriously,the personal responsibility guys can scream bloody murder all they want,but how is this anything other than piss poor service? If I suddenly start using over 100% more than I have ever used I WANT the company to call me to make damned sure i haven't been hacked. We have seen this SSDD over and over again,and it never ceases to amaze me how folks are quick to blame the guy when the simple fact is it is just showing how piss poor these companies are and how little they would care if your stuff got stolen.

    I mean,has there EVER been a household where they went from using a $100 a month plan to suddenly using $$$$$ and when contacted said "Sure,we know we are going to spend $20K. That was the whole idea!". It is just another case of no common sense on either side. But considering these companies hire lawyers like the above that can make even the simplest contract into a minefield of gibberish and the simple knowledge that someone who intended to rack up those kinds of charges are going to be using something other than a home plan makes me think the company could at least cut off the connection until they called someone to verify what was going on. But as always this is my 02c,YMMV

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Colin Smith (2679) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:38PM (#24905235)

    So? Don't sign it. It is exactly this kind of mentality that has brought down the housing market.

    Sorry, no. The bust must follow any boom, doesn't matter whether it is housing or tech stocks or commodities, our money is still based on debt, and debt is an exponential function.
     

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:44PM (#24905303)

    It's roaming in Vancouver, mind you. AT&T's roaming partner has to be Rogers (the only GSM carrier in Canada), and they charge 5 cents/kb if you're not on a plan.

  • by hurfy (735314) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:49PM (#24905341)

    Rate Plan Details
    Included Data 5 GB
    Additional data $0.00048/KB
    Canadian Data $0.015/KB
    International Data $0.0195/KB

    That is probably what they are told.

    BUT...

    Read it closer

    That 5GB is still US only. What is included is a whooping 100MB. For $49 dollars more than 5GB US plan. If they actually explain that do they still sell any?

    I say the rep leaves out this little detail. Afterall i had a sprint rep flatout lie about a package he was selling me when i asked point blank.

  • by hrvatska (790627) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:50PM (#24905355)

    International roaming is a feature you have to call and add to the account, they make you aware of the fees, and try to sell you a package that will reduce themm and when you do not buy it, they note it.

    That wasn't my experience with AT&T. I used them from 2001 to 2004. I live in the US, and I was able to freely use my cell phone in Canada, and accrue roaming charges, without having to call and authorize anything. I had one of their national plans, so I was never charged roaming charges in the US, Canada was a different story.

  • by maxume (22995) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:50PM (#24905359)

    It is prepaid, not on credit. If you have $5,000 in your phone account, you will get a big surprise, but if you have $15 in your phone account, you get a $15 surprise and then it stops working.

    Also, it simply doesn't work in Canada:

    http://web.virginmobileusa.com/help/service/coverage/general [virginmobileusa.com]

  • by todrules (882424) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:58PM (#24905405) Journal
    Why the cell phone companies can't combine the limits on prepaid plans with conventional rate plans is an interesting question, but I suspect the answer is not a technical limitation.

    Actually, T-Mobile does. It's called Flexpay, and your service gets cut off (at least for the rest of the billing cycle) when you reach your limit. And they have the same plans that normal postpaid accounts do. You can even buy your phone at full retail price and not even have a contract. You can cancel at any time.

    I'm not sure why the other companies do that. I suspect T-Mobile does cause their the little guy, and they need the customers.
  • by adnonsense (826530) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:11PM (#24905517) Homepage Journal

    (In fact, the one thing my boyfriend likes about T-mobile is that when he was traipsing all over Europe, you couldn't swing a charge cable around without hitting a T-mobile tower, so be enjoyed as-good-as-home data service!)

    That might have something to do with the fact that T-Mobile is a European carrier, the mobile arm of Germany's Deutsche Telekom.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:4, Informative)

    by dubl-u (51156) * <[ot.atop] [ta] [2107893252]> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:14PM (#24905545)

    You charged me exactly what it said in the contract I signed said you would! How dare you.

    That's the wrong way to look at it.

    I spend a good chunk of my time negotiating contracts with clients and vendors. Contract negotiation is a fantastic time sink, and only trained lawyers with years of commercial experience are fully competent to read and interpret contracts. I pay mine $250 an hour, and he's worth every penny. Can you imagine going through that effort for every pack of gum, movie ticket, or car repair?

    To avoid that, we have a number of mechanisms to make it so that people don't really have to understand the deals for common activities. They just trust that thinks work reasonably and in the usual fashion. Those mechanisms include the Uniform Commercial Code [wikipedia.org], a host of regulators, a variety of case law, and a bunch of rules imposed by wholesalers, retailers, credit card processors, and other middlemen.

    That AT&T has set things up so that reasonable behaviors yield unreasonable results is a mistake on their part. Whether or not a regulator can or will beat them up in this case, I dunno, but they'd be fools not to clean this problem up pronto. If people get scared to use new services because of stories like this, it costs them a lot more than $20k; it can cost millions.

    My bet is that AT&T will waive most or all of the charges, and in the long term look at implementing better notifications and limits.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:35PM (#24906671)

    It depends on your needs. I'm in Canada with Virgin (the official company for slashdoters). I pay 20$ for 200 minutes, call display and voice mail. With contract, it would cost me 35$ for only 100 minutes, call display and voice mail. It's true I would also get 1000 minutes during evening and week-end, but I use my phone mainly during work hour. As I use between 100 to 150 minutes a month, for me prepaid is a LOT cheaper than contract.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:37PM (#24906683)

    You're sadly mistaken - it's actually frequently the complete opposite - roaming is ENABLED by default unless you call and request that it's disabled, at least that's based on current and past experiences with virtually every major Canadian cellular provider.

    Ask how many people who live near a border (or travel close to one for work) how often they get accidentally billed for US roaming as they've unintentionally hooked to a US tower while still in Canada - it's very common.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @10:08PM (#24906869)

    Ah, but according to the article, the family DID call and talk to a representative and were NOT informed of the additional charges.

  • Re:Too bad.. (Score:3, Informative)

    by flimflam (21332) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @11:01PM (#24907193) Homepage

    that's actually completely wrong. I just got back from 2 weeks in Mexico and my AT&T phone worked fine with my default plan. There is now a warning on their iPhone page about data roaming fees, but there's nothing that needs to be done to enable it.

  • by Doug52392 (1094585) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @11:41PM (#24907441)

    I recently went away on a 7 day cruise to Bermuda. The first thing I noticed is how outrageously expensive Internet access on the ship was.... like $50+ for 2 hours! So I had to stay off the Internet.

    My mom always has to call our aunt every few days, since she's checking up on the house and getting our mail. So she made 3 phone calls... each about 10 minutes long while the ship was at sea. And guess what happened at the end of the month? They charged us $25 for each call we made. The total - for about 30 minutes of phone calls - was over $75 dollars!!! FOR 3 PHONE CALLS.

    Some of the people we saw on the ship - especially younger people - were talking on cell phones almost the whole trip. If any of them had AT&T and didn't understand their service contracts....

    It's plain stupid. $75 for 3 calls.

  • by modmans2ndcoming (929661) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @12:31AM (#24907681)

    Call your card company to let them know of your travels ahead of time and they will not call you. It is there for your protection.

  • Re:Apple? (Score:3, Informative)

    by raju1kabir (251972) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @02:13AM (#24908057) Homepage

    I was refuting the ridiculous claim by SuperKendall that "if this somehow was possible, I'm confident Steve Jobs would step in and either set AT&T straight or foot the bill himself."

    You must feel like a big man, refuting an obvious joke. Next try poking holes in the one about the three rabbis that walked into a bar.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:2, Informative)

    by silverbyte (213973) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @02:43AM (#24908147)

    In India, the mobile phone companies have an upper ceiling on the bill you can rack up (even on post-paid connections). This limit is like your credit limit - it is set based on how regular you were with your payments, etc. and is dynamically upgraded if the system sees you are consistently calling at higher rates (your monthly bill has details of what your "call limit" is).

    Once you *near* your limit, you get an SMS asking you to pre-pay some money to the company, before you are allowed to make more calls. If you hit your call-limit, your outgoing calls will be automatically barred. If you do pay the amount, based on certain heuristics, the aforementioned upgrading of your call limit takes place.

    I'm surprised that this system is not in place elsewhere. I think at the end of the day, it is the collection agencies that make a killing off this system, I am not ready to believe with all the legal and support personnel who must be spending time on issues like this, the phone companies make money on this, not to mention the bad press

  • by zooblethorpe (686757) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @02:47AM (#24908161)

    I must also chime in and say you're misinformed, at least for roaming within North America. I live on San Juan Island, WA [wikipedia.org], just across the Haro Strait from Victoria BC, and my cell phone often switches over to the BC Rogers cell across the water with no change in functionality -- and I have never called AT&T to "enable" any such roaming technology, it simply does it automatically. In fact, I have to be very cautious with my billing statements to make sure that AT&T isn't busy trying to slip a ton of extra charges in there for maintaining a cell tower here on the island that's so underpowered I wind up getting the one next door instead.

    Cheers,

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Informative)

    by gnasher719 (869701) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @09:54AM (#24909853)

    And what is stopping you from negotiating your own terms? As far as I know, this is physically possible and even legal.

    If you are anywhere in Europe, don't. If you find the terms in a contract unacceptable, they will most likely be unenforceable in a non-negotiated contract, and consumer laws will cover your ass. If you negotiated the terms, you are on your own.

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