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Family shocked by $18,000 phone bills

Verizon says the rules were clear, but the FCC is looking into the ‘unpleasant surprises’ that customers sometimes face. When the St. Germains of Massachusetts got their cell phone bill, they thought surely there had been a mistake. The bill that month for the family, normally about $100, was more than $12,000. When Bob St. Germain called Verizon Wireless to inquire, he was told that the next month’s bill would be nearly $6,000.
Verizon explained that when the family had renewed its two-year contract, a free data download promotion had ended. Not realizing the service had changed, Bryan St. Germain, then a college student, downloaded 816,000 kilobytes of data the first month and 375,000 the second. Thus, their total bill for two months was nearly $18,000.
I downloaded 1.19 million kilobytes last month. It cost $29.99. That’s Verizon’s monthly charge for an unlimited data plan for my smart phone. Two months would be $59.98.
We don’t know what a data plan cost in 2006, but if it was free for two years, it must not have cost the company $12,000 a month. Even if the St. Germains were 100% at fault, should making a mistake with your cell phone plan cost more than a new car?
Verizon argues that the charges were clearly spelled out in the family’s contract. “We go to great lengths to educate our customers on their products and services so that they avoid any unintended bills,” two Verizon spokesmen wrote in an e-mailed statement to the Globe.
After the story was published, Howard Waterman, the executive director of public relations for Verizon Wireless Northeast Area, wrote to The Globe: “This story paints an inaccurate picture about the clear disclosure of calling plan information we provide and neglects to include any of the many tools available to our customers to help manage their accounts.”
The Federal Communications Commission isn’t sure that’s enough. Partly in response to the Globe report, the FCC launched an initiative on “bill shock” this week, asking for public comment.
The St. Germains’ situation is not the first case of a wireless costumer unwittingly running up an enormous bill, with Verizon and competing carriers. One man reported being charged $62,000 for downloading a movie while traveling in Mexico. Many families have stories of unexpected bills in the hundreds of dollars for in some way going outside the parameters of their plans.

We Americans love our cell phones, but we hate our cell phone companies. The complexity of plans, the ever-changing nature of the rules and technology and what passes for customer service seem to make us all victims of the worst of “gotcha” capitalism.

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