Outrageous Cell Phone Bills

Updated: January 07, 2008

Since the introduction of the iPhone and other mobile data-transmission platforms, a new dimension has been added to consumer distrust of major mobile phone carriers. With hidden passages buried in the legalese of their service agreements, companies like AT&T Wireless, Sprint, Bell Canada and others have found ways to cheat unsuspecting consumers out of offensive amounts of money.

The outrageous phone bill subgenre was born in July 2007 when David Pogue, technology columnist for The New York Times, received his first iPhone bill — which he called "a staggeringly, hatefully complex document, designed by some Monty Pythoneseque committee in charge of consumer confusion."

Pogue, who had signed up for the $60 plan, found his first bill came to $150 with "unexplained services and features that were never mentioned during the sign up process, like MEDIA MAX, EXPD M2M, VOICE PRIVACY and AT&T DIRECT BILL." Had AT&T charged Pogue for "voice privacy" after handing over its entire network to the NSA (National Security Agency) for government spying? That seems rich, but it gets better.

Then there were the stories of giant iPhone bills that listed every text message and data-transmission bit, line by line, resulting in 300-page bills. These stories started coming out in late summer, but thanks to e-billing and some work by Apple Inc., they eventually disappeared. However, that was before iPhone users went on vacation.

In September, a British news site reported that an iPhone user had gone on a Mediterranean cruise and returned to England to find a 54-page phone bill totaling $4,800. The iPhone didn't know it was cruising through foreign waters, so it was checking for new emails every five minutes — even when the phone was off — racking up hefty charges by the hour.

Coincidentally or not, The New York Times reported on the exact same problem, on the exact same day. The article told the story of a San Francisco man whose European vacation cost him an additional $852 because he didn't deactivate the iPhone's automatic email-checker, which looked for new messages more than 500 times on his trip through Italy, Croatia and Malta.

Despite the rash of these sorts of stories, they seemed to have missed the eye of WIRED magazine's Chris Anderson, whose trip to China cost him $2,100 in iPhone email-checking fees; this generated a bit of blogosphere schadenfreude since it illustrated that even the most tech-savvy among us are vulnerable to these sneaky fees.

At some point along the way, cell phone users who signed up for "unlimited data" plans actually thought that "unlimited" meant unlimited and began using their cell phones as modems to download high-definition movies from Lime Wire, resulting in a $54,000 bill in England, an $85,000 bill in Canada and an American blogger who data-transmitted herself into a $14,000 debt to Sprint.

The recipient of this debt, "Krystyl" — a bottle-blonde with raccoon eyes — posted a video on YouTube to explain that she had purchased the Sprint data card so she could broadcast herself on Justin.tv "to allow my viewers to see what I'm doing," she said. When the card didn't work right, she cancelled the service, only to be slammed three weeks later with a bill for $14,062.27. "Why?" she asked in her video, "I don't know." To date, more than 37,000 YouTube viewers have seen Krystyl's complaint, the bill itself (which she assures us "is not fabricated, made up or [something I am] showing to you as a joke") and the return envelope.

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