A mentally-disabled B.C. teen was hit by an $8,000 cell phone bill from Koodo after texting someone he thought was a girlfriend through a "premium" text dating site.
"She had told me that she would meet me maybe in July…once we were ready," said 19-year-old Brandon Kobza. "I just feel ripped off. With my disability, I only get $900 a month. That’s not enough to even pay like a portion of[the bill]."
Kobza is a former foster child with fetal alcohol syndrome and other disabilities. Because Kobza didn’t qualify for a cell phone contract on his own, Ben Woodman, a church youth worker from Burnaby, B.C., reluctantly agreed to put the phone in his name — but with strict limits due to Kobza's disabilities.
"I said, 'You know I don’t want any data or extra charges' and they said, ‘We can block that.' I made sure he had unlimited texts," said Woodman.
No warning from Koodo
"I put a lot of faith in Koodo. I’m asking the representative 'What can go wrong ? Can I get charged for anything else?' And they said nothing about premium texts."
After a friend told him he could meet a girl on the text dating site, Kobza then registered his new cell phone number on youtext.com – a premium texting service – which, through Koodo, charges $2 per text.
He then exchanged 4,000 texts with someone going by the girl's name "Katya", who flirted with him by text several times a day.
"On there, she's like 'I love you a lot' and I’m like – 'Cool'," said Kobza.
Youtext did send several notices, by text, warning charges were being incurred, but Woodman said Kobza simply didn't comprehend what they meant.
"It’s preying on the weak. It’s preying on people. It’s preying on kids with cell phones," Woodman said.
After he saw the bills — $8,243.06 for a month and a half — Woodman cancelled Kobza’s phone. He said he also asked Koodo to cancel the texting charges, but the most the company would offer was 80 per cent off.
"If they forgave my bill, I would not necessarily care to come to [Go Public]. But in some ways I’m glad that we get to do some of these stories, because people need to know. You can get totally ripped off."
Hundreds of other complaints
Consumer advocates and the industry’s regulatory agency say they've heard countless complaints about premium texts, from wireless consumers who signed up on dating sites or from sites that send a "joke of the day", for example.
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"We continue to receive complaints…I can’t give you an exact number but related issues have been raised hundreds of times this year," said Howard Maker, the commissioner for complaints for telecom services, in an email.
"The wireless carriers perform a 'billing and collection' role in connection with the premium text messaging program. This is definitely a 'for profit' exercise on their part," Maker said.
After Woodman complained to Koodo, however, a representative insisted the company makes no money from premium text charges.
"They kept telling me 'Oh, it’s not us, it’s not us...it’s this other company. And I just kept telling them 'It’s a bill from you.'," Woodman said. "Obviously, you are making money off this."
At a Koodo kiosk in Vancouver, Go Public was told the same thing when we posed as a customer.
"I don’t think we do [make any money]," the clerk told us. "I don’t even think that Koodo wants anything to do with premium texts, because we have so many problems with premium texts. People sign up and they don’t know."
A Koodo spokesperson then told Go Public the company does keep part of the revenue from premium texts, but wouldn’t say how much.
"When we do take a percentage, for the most part, it is to cover costs around billing, call centre support and network costs," Kevin Banderk wrote in an email.
As a result of Go Public's inquiries, Koodo is now apologizing for what happened in Woodman’s case.
"We have investigated what occurred here, and it seems some errors have been made. We’re taking steps to correct those immediately," Banderk said.
"When the customer called us to complain, the first Koodo agent he spoke should have forgiven the entire bill...That didn’t happen."
He said premium text charges from the youtext site and others are supposed to be capped at $500 per month.
Cap didn't work
"We require providers to stop selling their service to our customers beyond that," said Banderk. "However, the service did not cap him at $500."
"The industry needs to wake up," said Janet Lo of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.
She pointed out that the telecom companies are supposed to regulate premium texts themselves. Based on the number of ongoing consumer complaints, she said they're not doing a very good job.
"If the industry doesn’t wake up and respond to what the consumers are saying then we need a regulator that is willing to step in and provide some safeguards for consumers."
Rogers is the only Canadian telecom that currently allows customers to block all premium texts. Lo said the others should follow suit. In the meantime, she suggests consumers be wary of entering their cell phone information on websites, because that is how texting services get the numbers.
Banderk said Koodo is working on a premium text blocking feature it hopes to introduce soon. He said it has now canceled Woodman's bill.
"We are sorry this happened. Further, we are following up with youtext.com and all premium text message providers to formally remind them of the $500 cap and insist it be followed.
"Finally, we are meeting with the Koodo agents involved to remind them of our policies, and will be sending a reminder out to all of our agents."