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Caveat emptor, to the tune of $18,000

Article: "Family, Verizon far apart over nearly $18,000 phone bill"

Last year there was the story of a cell phone bill that ran… get this… $62,000, after a Sprint customer downloaded Wall-E over his cellular data card that allows you to use your laptop on your cellular carrier’s data network.

Today the feature story courtesy of the Boston Globe is a Verizon customer whose son racked up over $18,000 by tethering his cell phone and using it for browsing the web instead of his parents’ dial-up connection.

Here are the details, according to the article: for two years, the St. Germain’s were customers of Verizon on a family plan that included an unlimited data plan at no cost for the 2 years. After the 2 years, they had to explicitly continue the data plan (it was not opt-out) or they would be charged a per-kilobyte rate.

After the two years, however, the son kept tethering his cell phone, and the parents were unaware of the huge charges being raked in. All of this took place back in 2006.

If you read the comments to the article, there’s a lot of anti-corporate backlash about this. Some of the comments say that Verizon should have informed them of the exorbitant fees being racked up by the data plan, and I agree with that. Those kind of charges are atypical, to say the least, and Verizon should have recognized this and alerted the St Germain’s to the issue.

That would’ve been good customer service, but as we all know, there is no legal or contractual obligation to good customer service.

Absent the alert, the St Germain’s should have been aware that their contract was expiring. Upon the expiration, if you don’t sign a new contract, your cell phone carrier will continue charging you on a monthly basis at the same rate as before, but it’s up to your cell phone carrier to determine if promotional options will be simply dropped from the contract or if they will be added in at a normal rate. If the contract doesn’t say that the options are opt-out, meaning you have to explicitly tell your carrier to not include it, then the options will not be included later.

Either way it means you have to pay attention to your contracts and your bill.

But at the same time, here’s one detail that needs to be kept in mind: the son’s tethering would’ve been interpreted by Verizon as being typical usage, meaning Verizon would’ve concluded that the account’s responsible party was aware of what was going on. If the son’s tethering started after the data plan expired, then the argument that Verizon should’ve informed the family would hold some water, but even then not much.

The onus is always going to be on the customer. You are responsible for your monthly plan. I pay attention to my monthly bill with AT&T. It’s how I discovered my fiancée had signed up to about $100 worth of those "send a text to this number" kind of things. When I discovered them, I told her about it and asked for her cell phone so I could unsubscribe each of them. I paid attention.

My fiancée has also been a texter for as long as she’s had a phone. I’ve had to adjust the texting plan on her line several times to prevent overages — and those adjustments happened mid-cycle, too. When she upgraded to a smart phone, you know the ones with the full keyboard, I upgraded the family plan to an unlimited texting plan.

This is what we in the business world like to call due diligence. There’s another phrase that comes to mind as well…

Caveat emptor.

And here’s one question: is the son helping to pay this down? After all, he was tethering the phone and racking up the huge fees.

Plus there is a provision in the contract that says that if you don’t renew at the end of the contract, they will continue billing you in order to not cut you off — you would just have the option of cancelling at any time without penalty. Imagine if they had been completely cut off from their service at the end of two years because their contract expired without renewal, oh the screaming that would be happening then…

Heck I have that provision on my apartment lease: if I don’t negotiate a new lease, they’ll charge me rent that is about $75/month more than what I currently pay, but I’ll be able to leave the apartment any time without paying any cancellation charge.

The only thing most people appear to be seeing is this: Verizon, a big corporation, charged a retired man $18,000. That’s all anyone appears to be looking at because we’ve become a society where personal responsibility is gone and the entitlement mentality has taken hold.

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