A couple from Merritt, B.C., have been battling Bell Canada for months over enormous bills — which they call outrageous and unwarranted — for thousands of dollars in unexplained data charges on their smartphone.
"They basically made us scared of our phone," said Daniel Methot.
"We just stopped using it. We shut it off," added his wife, Kate.
The Methots got their first shock soon after Kate signed up for the phone in October. She received a bill for over $1,000, mainly data charges.
"My wife looked at me and I thought, 'Oh boy, what did I do that I didn't know that I had done? I am in trouble,'" Daniel recalled.
At first, the couple said, they panicked, thinking they must have mistakenly downloaded something that used up a tremendous amount of data.
"I basically deleted every app that I had downloaded and just started to be a lot more conservative with the data use, and that's all I could do," Daniel said. "We never thought we would be billed for something we weren't using. That was sort of a new concept for us."
"We asked [Bell] what the problem was and they really couldn't give us an answer," Kate added.
Bills kept growing
Despite their efforts to minimize use of their Samsung Galaxy smartphone, they said, the bills continued to mount for hundreds of hours of data usage.
In December, Bell's bill included a charge for 30 hours of data usage in one 24-hour period. By that time, the couple's account had skyrocketed to $3,515.13.
The Methots estimate they've been overcharged more than $5,000 to date.
"Had we been paying these bills blindly without asking any questions we would be out $5,162.80 over a course of about five months," Daniel said.
The couple said it would be impossible for them to spend that much time on their smartphone.
"My husband is in a business where he can't sit on his phone all day, and we have a nine-month-old daughter and she requires a lot of attention," Kate said. "So I can't be on my phone or on the internet all day."
"It should have been a no-brainer for Bell," Daniel said. "Something wrong is happening here and [Bell] should probably fix it."
CBC News asked Bell several times for a response to the Methots' complaint. While refusing an in-depth interview on the topic, Bell told CBC News it cannot yet explain what is happening with the account.
"I'm still going to pursue the deeper, more intensive technical investigation into the Methots' data usage and am hopeful that this will yield some answers," Bell spokesperson Jason Laszlo said.
One possible explanation Bell gave is that perhaps someone else is tapping into the phone and using it to connect to the internet without the Methots' knowledge.
"The one possibility that kept being raised was that the device's mobile hot-spot feature may be on. This feature turns the device into a wireless modem which can connect up to three other devices via Wi-Fi."
However, Daniel said, he has already ruled out that possibility because the charges continue even when the phone is shut off. He said he's spent countless hours talking with numerous Bell representatives trying to diagnose the problem. Each time, he said, he had to tell the whole story from the beginning.
"He would either be trying to work or trying to deal with this bill," Kate said. "Sometimes it would keep him from his job and it wasn't fair."
'I felt like I was being treated like a criminal'
— Bell customer Daniel Methot
Daniel said the representatives would ask him the same questions: Were the couple watching movies on the phone, using it to connect a computer to the internet (known as "tethering"), or using it out of the country?
The couple insist they don't do any of those things.
"And when we asked them what we needed to do to fix the problem, they just said 'Well, quit watching videos on your phone all day,'" Kate said.
"I felt like I was being treated like a criminal — like we were trying to essentially steal from them," Daniel said. "When you call in to argue a bill, that's what they do. They tell you to pay — and don't ask questions."
In December, the Methots paid a lawyer $400 to write a letter to Bell but that yielded no results. In January, Daniel thought he had finally made a breakthrough.
Temporary relief short-lived
In a phone call he recorded, a Bell representative told him his problem was a "known" software problem on Bell's end. "You'll be OK, don't worry, because it is a known issue," she told Daniel.
The account was immediately credited $3,330.88, and the Methots thought their problem had finally been solved.
Days later, though, they received a new bill with $1,204 in new charges.
"It was just a temporary relief and then the stress is back again," Kate said.
"At that point I wasn't interested in being a Bell customer anymore," Daniel added.
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Bell told CBC News what the Methots were told about the software issue was incorrect.
"The "known issue" the reps mistakenly assumed applied to the Methots was one where a small number of customers were billed for legitimate data … at a rate not in accordance with their plan," Laszlo wrote.
"This isolated matter has been resolved and affected customers credited in full. The Methots' concern isn't that they are being charged an incorrect rate for data, but that they are being charged for data they didn't use."
Daniel said he wants to warn other customers who may be unknowingly paying for data they didn't use.
"There is really no way of telling how much has been billed out to different customers that was never actually used," Daniel said.
"These customers are not alone," said Howard Maker, the head of the federal Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services. "Unfortunately, Canadian telecom consumers do suffer from many billing errors from their providers."
Maker said his office received more than 1,900 complaints about wireless providers last year, and 40 per cent of them were about overbilling.
Data monitoring advised
Data is a particular problem, Maker said, because many consumers aren't aware of how much they use. He suggested smartphone users track their data usage with an app from an independent company that will give them evidence if they need to dispute a bill.
"If the consumer has some third-party piece of evidence that says 'Look, I have this tool of a third-party provider and it says you are wrong,' there is some evidence that the provider can use to conduct its research," Maker said.
The Methots say Bell recently offered to cancel their contract and waive all outstanding fees, but they have not yet accepted. They say they aren't sure Bell's remedy is adequate compensation considering what they paid the lawyer and the ordeal they've been through.
"I am not going to go away, I am too deep into this now," Daniel said. "This has taken up a lot of my life lately so I don't just intend to walk away."