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Is Verizon charging you $1.99 for mistakes?

Whistleblower says charges for erroneous data usage are intentional.

By Teresa Mears Nov 12, 2009 7:08PM

Verizon Wireless is already charging you up to $350 if you want to terminate your service and $3 to pay your bill in person.


Now New York Times technology columnist David Pogue has revealed “another bit of greedy nastiness,” as he put it: Verizon is charging customers $1.99 for any bit of data download, even if it’s done in error -- and customers complain the phones are designed to make such errors inevitable.


Here is what one of Pogue’s readers reported:

Virtually every bill I get has a couple of erroneous data charges at $1.99 each -- yet we download no data.
Here’s how it works. They configure the phones to have multiple easily hit keystrokes to launch ‘Get it now’ or ‘Mobile Web’-- usually a single key like an arrow key. Often we have no idea what key we hit, but up pops one of these screens. The instant you call the function, they charge you the data fee. We cancel these unintended requests as fast as we can hit the End key, but it doesn’t matter; they’ve told me that ANY data -- even one kilobyte -- is billed as 1MB. The damage is done.


Teresa Dixon Murray, the Money Matters columnist at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, brought the issue to light in August, when she realized that every month, at least two or her three cell phones (and never the same two) were being billed $1.99 each for “data usage” -- except she and her family weren’t using any data. She detailed her six-month effort to get the charges stopped, including erroneous explanations for the charges she received from Verizon representatives.


After the newspaper published her column, she heard from more than 400 Verizon customers in the Cleveland area with similar problems.

Verizon representatives told The Plain Dealer the problem was being taken care of and that customers would receive refunds.

"We don't want to zing stuff into people's bills in hopes they don't catch it," Roger Tang, region president for Verizon in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, told The Plain Dealer. "We're not interested in charging customers for things they accidentally access. Our brand reputation is everything."


Apparently Verizon was not quite as contrite as it appeared.


Pogue also got an email from someone who identified himself as a Verizon employee, who says the practice is intentional. Not only that, he says employees are being trained to push back if customers want to block data services.


The phone is designed in such a way that you can almost never avoid getting $1.99 charge on the bill. Around the OK button on a typical flip phone are the up, down, left, right arrows. If you open the flip and accidentally press the up arrow key, you see that the phone starts to connect to the web. So you hit END right away. Well, too late. You will be charged $1.99 for that 0.02 kilobytes of data. NOT COOL. I’ve had phones for years, and I sometimes do that mistake to this day, as I’m sure you have. Legal, yes; ethical, NO.
Every month, the 87 million customers will accidentally hit that key a few times a month! That’s over $300 million per month in data revenue off a simple mistake!
Our marketing, billing, and technical departments are all aware of this. But they have failed to do anything about it -- and why? Because if you get 87 million customers to pay $1.99, why stop this revenue? Customer Service might credit you if you call and complain, but this practice is just not right.
“Now, you can ask to have this feature blocked. But even then, if you one of those buttons by accident, your phone transmits data; you get a message that you cannot use the service because it’s blocked -- BUT you just used 0.06 kilobytes of data to get that message, so you are now charged $1.99 again!


Once Pogue posted his column, he heard from a reader who said AT&T has the same kind of buttons and also charges $2 for accidentally hitting them. This article in Phone News details how AT&T calculates the charges. Pogue is asking customers of other wireless companies for their experiences to determine if the problem is industry-wide.


This goes to show that it always pays to check every bill and ask questions about any charges you don’t understand or don’t believe you incurred. Should we have to do that every month? It certainly doesn’t seem right. Have you found this suspicious data charge on your cell phone bill?


Related reading:


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