A $30,000 movie download from iTunes?

Yesterday's blog item about Carlos Mota, the North Philadelphia man who got a surprise $17,500 bill from Verizon Wireless for what he says was about 90 minutes of "data roaming" on the Internet during a trip to the Dominican Republic, drew a lots of heated response. 

Some readers thought Mota should happily agree to Verizon's offer to settle the charges for about $1,000 - or thought the company was being too generous.  Others said even $1,000 didn't seem fair if the customer wasn't adequately warned - one likened it to going to a pub in England, ordering a pint, and getting a $17,000 tab. Data transmission, they said, just shouldn't be that unexpectedly expensive.

Some even questioned how the bill could have gotten so high if Mota really just used the Internet for 90 minutes.  Here's how: Verizon Wireless spokesman Sheldon Jones says Verizon's "data roaming" charges can go as high as $20 per megabyte. That's apparently what they were in the Dominican Republic. Stephanie Farr's initial story in the Philadelphia Daily News said Mota was charged about $17,500 for 872 megabytes of use.

Want another way to think about that extraordinarily high price? At that rate, if you were to download the average two-hour movie from iTunes, which Apple says runs about 1.5 gigabytes, you'd be charged, um, $30,000. Never has the multiplex sounded so cheap.

Jones says the company strives to avoid these sorts of surprises, and says Mota should have received more than the single warning he mentioned to Farr.  I haven't been able to reach him to ask, but given the quirks of computer warnings and pop-up boxes, it's certainly conceivable that a warning could be  missed. (Farr wrote today that Mota had agreed to Verizon's offer.)

Jones asked me to share the following tips for Verizon Wireless consumers trying to avoid a repeat of Mota's data-roaming mistake:

  • Customers planning to travel internationally should make it a point to contact us beforehand and describe their travel plans. That way, we can recommend a plan that best meets their usage needs to help them avoid unintended roaming charges.
  • Verizon Wireless sends free messages to customers that are traveling internationally alerting them that they are engaging in data roaming and providing the data rates for that particular country (CDMA and GSM). Additional free alerts are sent when a customer reaches $100, $250, $500 as they hit those dollar thresholds. This gives customers multiple notifications on what they are billing.
  • Customers can find a wealth of information on easy-to-use tools to monitor usage/manage costs both online and from their wireless phone at our My Verizon.com website (www.verizonwireless.com/myverizon). Customers can also find important information on pricing options that can save money for wireless data usage when traveling internationally at www.verizonwireless.com/globalaccess

You'll probably get similar advice from any carrier. The key, of course, is in Point Number One: Call and ask questions before you travel with a phone or laptop card.  Otherwise, unplug your air card and move slowly away from the computer .. before it blows up in your face.