Business

'They're bullying us': Bell cuts phone service to family struggling to pay surprise $1,800 bill

An Edmonton family is claiming unfair treatment after they got hit with a surprise $1,800 Bell phone bill for texting charges and then — when they couldn't afford to pay — Bell briefly cut their only phone service. Bell said it sent messages warning about expensive texts to the U.S. and reduced their bill by $200.

Bell sent 'courtesy' messages about costs incurred by family's daughter from U.S. texts

Joy Zylstra and her husband Dave are struggling to pay an $1,800 wireless phone bill they said they didn't know was coming. (submitted by Joy Zlystra)

After an Edmonton family received a surprise $1,800 Bell phone bill for texting charges, they didn't think the situation could get much worse.

But it did. Because the Zylstras couldn't afford to pay up on time, the family got hit with yet another shock: On Feb. 15, Bell temporarily cut off their only phone service.

"We just feel like they're bullying us," said Joy Zylstra. "I don't know how they're able to get away with this."

Joy and Dave Zylstra's saga began when their 14-year-old daughter — unbeknownst to them — racked up nearly $2,000 in charges by sending thousands of text messages to friends in the U.S. between Nov. 22 and Dec. 31.

At the time, the couple and their daughter shared a Bell small business wireless phone plan, each with their own line.

Dave and Joy Zylstra say their daughter didn't understand the costs involved in sending texts to the U.S. and that they had no inkling of the charges — until they showed up over the course of two bills in late December and late January.

"That was a punch to the gut," said Joy.

Data protections only

Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson said that Bell knocked $200 off the bill "as a goodwill gesture," dropping the charge to $1,800.

He also said that "as a courtesy," Bell had sent warning messages two separate times when the texting charges climbed to $15 and then $45.

However, the notices only appeared on the daughter's phone and she ignored them, thinking a text from Bell didn't concern her.

"I should have received a notification," said Dave, the plan's account holder. "I could have immediately realized there was an issue and dealt with it."

After Dave received the bills, he cancelled his daughter's phone line. 

Following complaints about teens racking up data overage charges on shared family phone plans, the CRTC beefed up the rules to provide families with more warnings of large charges. (CBC)

Following complaints about teens running up data overage fees on shared phone plans, the CRTC, Canada's telecom regulator, added protections to the Wireless Code in 2017: it mandated that the account holder must approve all data charges beyond $50.

Unfortunately for the Zylstras, the same rule doesn't apply to texting charges.

Consumer advocate, John Lawford said texting costs are negligible for providers, and feels the Zylstras shouldn't be on the hook for such a big bill run up by a minor.

"Since it's not really costing [Bell] any money, it just looks like profiteering or being mean," said Lawford, executive director of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

When Bell customers sign up in advance for unlimited Canada-U.S. texting, they pay only $12 a month.

Consumer advocate John Lawford said texting costs are negligible for phone companies and feels the Zylstras shouldn’t be on the hook for such a big bill. (Christopher Gargus/CBC)

Bell said Dave must pay up. 

"As the account holder, Mr. Zylstra accepted responsibility for payment of [all] services," said Gibson, adding that Dave can track all activity on his account using online monitoring tools offered by Bell.

Slow to pay

Because this is the slow season for Dave's work as an industrial brick layer, the Zylstras said they asked Bell for more time to pay the bill.

The company laid out a payment plan with the first $1,100 due by Feb. 8. Joy said she told Bell meeting that deadline would be a struggle, but that the family would try their best.

"We just simply wanted a reasonable payment plan to give us time to pay this off until my husband starts working again," said Joy. "But they flat-out refused to help us."

The Zylstras failed to meet the deadline. Instead, they said they paid down about $400 by Feb. 14.

On the morning of Feb. 15, Bell sent Dave a text stating that he must pay a "past due" total of $316.86 by March 1 to avoid a service suspension. 

So the Zylstras say there were baffled when, later that same day, their phones lines were cut. 

"It didn't make any sense because the text said March 1," said Joy.

Bell wanted a $1,000 payment toward the bill to restore service. In desperation, the Zylstras borrowed the money from a relative, who put the fee on his credit card so that service could resume that same day. 

"I was crying on the phone with [Bell]," said Joy, who called to complain the following day.

On top of the texting bill, the family now also faces a $70 charge in phone reactivation fees.

Right to disconnect?

According to the Wireless Code, telcos must give customers notice at least two weeks before and then a second notice at least 24 hours before suspending a customer's service.

Those notices must also include a scheduled disconnection date.

Bell never forewarned the Zystras their service would be suspended on Feb. 15.

Even so, the telco said it still complied with the Wireless Code.

According to Canada's Wireless Code, telcos must give customers notice at least two weeks before suspending a customer’s service. (CBC)

Spokesperson, Gibson provided as proof two letters he said Bell emailed Dave, one on Jan. 26 and one on Feb. 6. They stated that if Dave didn't make his $1,100 payment by Feb. 8, Bell "may" suspend his services. The actual disconnection date of Feb. 15 isn't mentioned.

Dave said he never received the emails which could have wound up in his spam folder. He did, however, receive Bell's text on Feb. 15, informing him his service could be suspended on March 1.

Gibson said the text was automatically generated by Bell's system for past due accounts and unrelated to the payment plan.

The Zylstras said, at this point, they're fed up with Bell and plan to switch providers once they manage to pay off their bill.

"We feel very betrayed," said Dave.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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