Telus customer hit with $24K cellphone bill: Could it happen to you?
Jesse Janssen says it's too easy for anyone, including a thief, to approve big charges
When Jesse Janssen received his Telus cellphone bill in September, he expected the usual — a monthly charge of $67. So when he saw that he owed a whopping $24,225.80, he was dumbfounded.
"I was shocked and I was in disbelief," says the ER doctor from Vancouver. "It was so high, it was almost funny."
The gargantuan extra costs were for roaming charges, using up 8 GB of data while in the U.S. in August. But Janssen wasn't in the U.S. when the charges were racked up.
He says someone stole his phone, cracked the password and then ran up the bill. Janssen didn't report the phone as missing for two weeks. At the time, he thought he'd simply lost his phone and it would eventually turn up.
When Janssen contacted Telus about the big bill in September, he felt optimistic the mysterious fees would be dropped.
"Somebody used my phone fraudulently," he says. "I was hoping that there would be some degree of protection afforded to me."
Janssen was surprised when Telus informed him that it had received permission, via his cellphone, to run up $24,156.91 in data roaming charges.
"They said 'We have proof that you provided consent.'"
Janssen says it wasn't him who gave permission.
Just say 'yes' to the charge
To protect customers from runaway fees, Canada's Wireless Code stipulates that cellular providers must cut customers off once they hit $50 in data overage charges and $100 in roaming charges.
The only way customers can continue, is if they give consent that they want to pay for more.
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) introduced the code in 2013.
Janssen soon learned that anyone with access to a phone with a Telus cellular plan can give consent by simply replying "yes" to a text message sent by the company. Many providers have a similar procedure for customers.
There is no need to provide proof of identity.
Janssen points out that every time he contacts Telus as customer, he has to provide a verification code.
"They made me verify who I was constantly, but to charge me $24,000, there was no verification," says Janssen. "It could be anybody."
He isn't the only who has complained about how providers request consent. Last year, CBC's Marketplace reported the story of Bell customer Rosemary Pick from Fletchers Lake, N.S.
She had a family cellphone plan she shared with her children. Unbeknownst to her, her son approved going over the $50 data cap and racked up more than $1,700 in data overage charges.
After Pick lodged a complaint, Bell eventually withdrew the charge.
Telus offers discount
Janssen didn't get his bill completely wiped out. According to Telus documents obtained by CBC News, he contacted the company numerous times over the course of a week before it offered a compromise — it would lower his roaming charges to a total of $1,224.
Telus told CBC News that the offer was "a goodwill gesture," because Janssen hadn't reported his phone missing at the time that the charges were incurred.
But Janssen felt Telus's offer was still unfair.
He admits that he waited too long to report his missing phone — a total of two weeks. Janssen says he lost his phone during a private party at a high-end hotel while on vacation in Chicago in July.
Staff members who cleared out the party room the next day told Janssen they'd search for his phone. He felt confident it would be found — most probably in one of the couches that was now in storage at a warehouse.
"Theft wasn't at the top of my radar," says Janssen.
He also feared, incorrectly, that if he reported his new $600 Samsung phone as missing, it would be deactivated and he couldn't use it again.
Even if he's to be penalized for failing to inform Telus right away, Janssen says he doesn't see why the bill should be more than $500. That's the amount he estimates he would have been charged if he had purchased a roaming package for 8 GB of data while in the U.S.
"Paying what the data would cost at a travel plan rate is ample punishment," says Janssen.
Instead of accepting Telus's offer, he took his case to Canada's independent telecom watchdog, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS).
Telus responded by making the same offer as before. In its CCTS submission, the company stated that "the sole responsibility lies with Mr. Janssen" because of the delay in reporting his lost phone.
"Given the circumstances on this case," added Telus, "the offer is more than fair and reasonable."
This time, Janssen decided to give in and pay the $1,224, even though he still wasn't happy with the offer.
The CCTS told CBC News that it didn't investigate Janssen's complaint because the two parties reached a resolution.
A flaw that needs to be fixed?
After his experience, Janssen believes the CRTC needs to make clear in the wireless code that only the account holder can approve added roaming or data overage charges — perhaps by providing a verification code.
"My example illustrates so clearly the flaw in this," he says. "This idea that whoever is holding the phone can type 'yes' with no verification whatsoever who you are is absolutely unbelievable."
The CCTS told CBC News that it agrees that the account holder should be the only one consenting to extra charges. But the commission said this rule needs to be enforced only for family plans, where there are multiple cellphone users but only one person is footing the bill.
The issue of who provides consent is being explored this week during a CRTC hearing to review the wireless code.