It took Robert Lendvai just 20 seconds and $600 to download a power-point presentation onto his BlackBerry while vacationing with his family in the Dominican Republic last March.
The Toronto marketing consultant didn't intend to work during the holiday, so didn't make special arrangements with his wireless carrier, Rogers. But a client had made an emergency work request, so he obliged.
By his reckoning, $600 for 20 seconds of work was a jackpot return for Rogers. Lendvai could have flown his customer down to hand-deliver the presentation for about the same cost.
"I downloaded 19 megabytes of data, which is nothing. It's 20 seconds," said Lendvai. "My plane ticket probably cost a heck of a lot less than that."
Lendvai is one of many customers who feel their wireless carrier could have done more to prevent them from wandering outside the monthly plans and pay unexpected fees.
"Mobile communication has become indispensable. People are inevitably going to fall into the traps," said Dali Bentolila, who owns Telepath, an Ottawa-based boutique service provider that caters to small- and medium-sized businesses.
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Such traps include using more time and sending more texts than your plan includes, or doing anything while the phone is in roaming mode. And that can happen easily, he said.
"Almost everyone gets hit at least once doing something that's outside of their paid plan. In the U.S., the only trap left is if you use more airtime than in your bucket, but the buckets are enormous," he said.
Bentolila has seen friends billed for roaming because they used their phone while driving along Highway 401 close to the U.S. border, and the signal was picked up by a U.S. carrier.
"Just wander a little outside the confines of the plan and that can cost you more than your rent. It's very oppressive the way Canadian carriers have designed their plans," said Bentolila. "That wouldn't exist if competition was a little more robust."
Longtime Bell customer Rosemary Kohr also had a complaint about customer service.
The London, Ont., mom bought her 16-year-old daughter a new cellphone last spring and a plan that allowed for 250 free outgoing texts. Things went swimmingly for the first two months. Her daughter was an A student and was carrying along responsibly, until October.
"Then I got a large full-sized envelope from Bell. I opened it and I was horrified, horrified. It was 53 pages long, double-sided. Itemized texts: 17:10, 17:53. Unbelievable. And each one of these cost 15 cents," said Kohr.
Her daughter's texting total reached 2,000, worth $350. And Kohr said friends she spoke to told her she got off easy. It seemed most of her friends had had at least one surprisingly large bill in the recent past, involving texting beyond limits or roaming into long distance.
Ellen Roseman writes a business column for Money Talks, which can be found at CBC.ca/money. Her Nov. 18 column about roaming charges generated several comments that illustrate how easy it is for customers to wander beyond the confines of their wireless plan.
"On a business trip to Dublin last year, I racked up a $1,400 Rogers Mobility bill in two weeks. Ouch! I've had other high bills travelling to London. Generally, the charge is $2/minute and about $0.75/text," wrote one person.
"I am techno savvy and even I have fallen prey to these outrageous roaming charges. I accidentally left my phone on also while travelling in Mexico. (It was in silent mode so I didn't even hear the incoming messages). I returned home to a $200 phone bill," wrote Don in Calgary.
"I'm horrified by the whole Bell Mobility deal. I just got a $3,400 bill for US roaming for 49 [minutes] of use. I've been a Bell customer for 15 [years] and this is the first mistake with that new phone," wrote Jen Goldup.
Kohr called Bell to complain, and while the company agreed to wipe out the November text-message fees, she was still on the hook for the October fees for more than 2,000 texts. She paid up and altered her daughter's plan to include unlimited texting for a mere $15 a month more.
After CBC's involvement, Bell agreed to credit Kohr with the full amount charge for the extra texts because she has been a "good customer."
However, Bell Canada spokeswoman Julie Smithers defended the carrier, saying customer service is a priority but that consumers also have to keep an eye on their accounts.
"We make every effort to clearly communicate what customers are signing up for," said Smithers.
Customers are able to keep track of their text numbers at Bell's website, but "ultimately it is important for customers to be aware of their plans," she said.
Kohr said she feels it would have been more responsible for Bell to simply cut her daughter off, or at least, send a warning message indicating Laura was approaching her 250-text limit.
Certainly, she has had cellphones cut off before. Her older daughter, who was working in Stratford, Ont., last summer, called in a panic, saying her cellphone was no longer working. The reason was the credit card linked to the cellphone had expired and Bell didn't have the new one.
"They're willing to do that when it's in their interest," said Kohr. "I work in a hospital and we work really hard to accommodate people because I have goodwill. I think it would be to Bell's benefit to have some goodwill."
Encourages warning messages
In Lendvai's case, he felt Rogers could have earned a priceless amount of goodwill by simply allowing for a pop-up message warning him that he was about to download some data while roaming, and did he wish to continue.
Lendvai too felt powerless. He paid the bill in full after making no traction with Rogers in the complaint department. However, he did what he could to advertise his unhappiness and posted a copy of the bill on Twitter.
"With everyone's ability to use social media, the companies just come across as extremely uncaring and greedy," said Lendvai. "Now with Globalive, all we can hope for is to see a little competition and a little less indifference to the customer."
Wind Mobile, owned by Globalive Communications, is the newest entrant into the wireless market after Industry Minister Tony Clement approved its bid to operate in Canada.
But according to Bentolila, consumers have to be savvy and need to be able to hold a grudge right to the end.
Big companies will only make changes to their policies if consumers leave their carrier in protest. If a company can keep an angry consumer from leaving by throwing a credit their way, then it will be business as usual, he said.
"Companies aren't there to promote social well-being. They're there to make a profit," he said.
With the arrival of a fourth carrier, Wind Mobile, customer service should improve, said Bentolila, however, he did note that Canada used to have more wireless carriers in the past — Fido and Clearnet — and they were taken over and things went back to the old way.
Mark Fernandes of the Better Business Bureau branch in British Columbia say people who feel strongly enough should consider lodging a complaint with the CRTC or to the new public watchdog, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.
"As soon as you get people angry enough who are facing the same challenges, if they can get organized and bring it to the attention of a government agency, then things can happen," said Fernandes.
"Companies can voluntarily provide early warnings to customers, but there isn't anything specific in the legislation that requires them to do that," said Fernandes. "It's not that the companies are not being honest, but the consumer has to have some responsibility."