FCC seeks to remedy cellphone users' 'bill shock'

The Federal Communications Commission is a key regulator of the telecommunications industry and plays an important role in shaping US. technology policy.
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 8:18 PM

The Federal Communications Commission wants cellphone customers to know: It can hear you now.

Consumers are complaining in record numbers about their wireless bills, and the FCC has promised to act. Next week, the agency will unveil a proposal to address "bill shock" by requiring that carriers notify users of overcharges and sudden increases in their bills.

But advocacy groups say the FCC has barely begun to address the massive problems generated by increasingly bewildering phone bills.

As cellphones are "bundled" with television and Internet services, and with the exploding number of applications available for smartphones, consumer groups say bills have become multi-page puzzles. They complain of confusing language, third-party charges, mystery fees for data and other services - all amounting to monthly totals that aren't what a user signed up for at point of sale.

The recent announcement that Verizon Wireless wrongly charged 15 million customers for data fees and will shell out $50 million in reimbursements doesn't help public sentiment.

"This is only one case that made the light of day," said Carl Hamann, a resident of Stamford, Mich., who believes he was one of those Verizon customers.

He said he was charged $1.99 for data he never signed up for last January and February. He's been charged for data each month over the past year, even though he's only signed up to place and receive voice calls. Hamann said he put a block on his account so he and his 20-year-old son can't use text and data services. Still, he got billed $73.65 for data in June and $68.25 in July.

All told, he's called Verizon's customer service each month for what he said was more than $300 in erroneous data services.

"This may not be a lot for one customer, but then look at all their customers affected and you do the math," Hamann said.

Verizon said it would not comment on a specific case. It also declined to comment on the FCC's ongoing investigation into its billing practices.

Small "mystery" charges are among the most common errors on cellphone bills, according to Validas, a Texas-based company that audits telecom bills for corporations and individuals.

Edward J. Finegold, Validas's chief analytics officer, said one growing problem involves third parties, such as a text-messaging service or ringtone provider, piggybacking onto someone's phone bill. For example, a user may send a text message to an outside service through an offer in, say, a videogame, expecting a one-time charge. But Finegold said the fine print actually allows the service to automatically trigger a monthly subscription fee.

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