How easy can it be to ring up nearly $20,000 in unexpected data-roaming charges from your wireless carrier? Probably easier than you'd imagine, judging by an experience recounted by a Philadelphia-area businessman.
I'll call him Bob from Bucks County because he doesn't want to have his name published. A consultant in his 40s, he works for a business whose parent company has dealings in the telecommunications industry, and he worries that his job could be in jeopardy.
But Bob was upset enough with Verizon Wireless to send a formal complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, and to share the details with me. Although Verizon says it reversed the charges within several weeks last summer - as quickly as was reasonably possible, a spokesman says - Bob was so troubled by the size of the bill that any delay seemed interminable. All the while, he worried about the potential blight on his credit from a debt he couldn't afford.
Bob says he wants to help other consumers avoid similar distress - including an especially disturbing episode of "Let's Make a Deal": Just when he thought a Verizon supervisor was working toward erasing all the charges, he says, another company rep called and urged him to pay $2,000 to put the incident behind him.
FCC officials say complaints like Bob's occur with every major carrier and are fueling their efforts to address a problem they call "bill shock" - a catchall for customers' jaw-dropping reactions to wireless bills that can be hundreds or thousands of dollars larger than expected and that generate about 1,500 complaints each year.
Analyzing a sample, the FCC found that one in five topped $1,000 - a category in which data-roaming and international charges loomed large. One wireless customer reported unexpected charges of $68,505 - enough to buy a high-end Mercedes-Benz.
Bob's bill was more Toyota Corolla-size. But shock accurately nails his reaction when he learned, midway through a trip to Germany and Poland, that he'd amassed close to $20,000 in data charges. His clue came when his Mobile Broadband suddenly stopped working, prompting him to call customer service and learn of his jaw-dropping tab.
From Bob's standpoint, here's the rub: He knew such charges had snared other consumers, he says, so he took pains to avoid the problem.
Bob counts three conversations with Verizon personnel before he went overseas, including one at a Verizon store where he signed up for a $220-a-month GlobalAccess plan, plus one after he arrived in Poland. Each time, he says, he asked what data would cost if he exceeded the global plan's 200-megabyte monthly limit. Each time, he says, he got the same reply: 5 cents per meg.
The way many people use computers nowadays, even that price is dear. At 5 cents per meg, for instance, downloading the average 1.5-gigabyte iTunes movie would cost you $75. But Bob was planning only light usage abroad, so he saw no reason to worry. When his laptop asked him to accept several large software updates, he didn't balk.
"I'm a busy guy," he says. "I did the mental math - $30 or $40 to get the download seemed like it was worth it."
Then he came home and saw how Verizon had done the math. Despite his monthly plan, Verizon charged him $19,128 for 934 megabytes at a "pay per use" rate of $20.48 per megabyte.
What does Verizon say? Company spokesman Sheldon Jones says he can't confirm that Bob had any such conversations about pricing. But if he did, Jones says, Bob was apparently the victim of a simple misunderstanding.
Although both Germany and Poland now come under the umbrella of Verizon's GlobalAccess plans' discount pricing, last summer those rates applied to Germany but not Poland, Verizon says. In Poland, the pay-per-use rate was the only rate available.
Jones says the important thing is that Verizon addressed Bob's problem once it was brought to the company's attention - even though he owed the entire amount, under its terms of service.
"It happened, and we fixed it - and we fixed it pretty quickly," Jones says.
Even more important is that consumers recognize the perilous complexities of overseas charges, and not just Verizon's.
Each of the major carriers has different plans, and pricing details often change, but they all top out in the same nosebleed realm. AT&T's data-roaming charges can go as high as nearly $20 per megabyte, Sprint's as high as $16 per meg, and T-Mobile's as high as $15 per meg.
If geekspeak is Greek to you, here are some translations. That iTunes movie that would have cost Bob $75 at 5-cents-per-meg? At T-Mobile's relative bargain price, two hours of pleasure would set you back $22,500.
Even e-mail and Web-surfing can be budget-busters. According to AT&T's online data calculator (http://go.philly.com/attdatacalc), a daily pace of sending 15 e-mail messages, opening 15 Web pages, and watching four minutes of streaming video would generate more than 500 megabytes of usage per month - about $10,000 at AT&T's or Verizon's top rates.
Jones says Verizon now sends multiple alerts to customers as charges pile up: e-mail as they pass the $50, $200, $500, and $2,000 marks. That's the kind of requirement the FCC is weighing, against opposition from carriers who say any rule would limit their ability to innovate.
The irony is that alerts would do little for customers like Bob, who doesn't recall getting any such alerts. With the meter spinning so wildly, they can rack up thousands of dollars in charges before they even notice.
It's not clear what the solution is, but the problem is plain. At the top rates, all the carriers charge more for data roaming than anyone but an oligarch would willingly bear.
Tips for Data-Hungry Roamers
Check with your wireless carrier before leaving the United States to see if there's a plan suited to your needs.
Describe your itinerary in detail, and double-check answers on the carrier's website. Terms change frequently and vary from country to country.
Ask about all devices - smartphones and tablets as well as laptops.
Disable "data roaming," if possible, on your smartphone before you leave the United States. Otherwise, it will begin downloading data as soon as you restart it.
Consider buying or renting a prepaid device at your destination, such as a local phone, wireless modem,
or data card. With an unlocked GSM phone, you may be able to purchase a substitute SIM card with a local number and predictable data rates. Most U.S. phones are locked.
Use free WiFi at hotels, when abroad, and check e-mail or surf the Web at Internet cafes.
Power off devices when not in use.
Contact columnist Jeff Gelles
at 215-854-2776 or email@example.com.