Bill Shock in 2016

Huge steps have been taken over the last few years to eliminate the threat of billshock for traveling cell phone users. People are far more aware of the risks and take steps to ensure that they check their cell plans more carefully to see what the rates are – and companies are reducing roaming rates, adding more options and countries and putting in place caps on data use. But we’re still seeing stories of billshock in the papers, sometimes because of the customer’s negligence, but also and more disturbingly, sometimes for reasons completely outside the user’s control. We take a look at some of the latest stories here, a collection of cautionary tales.

Robbed, Twice

We start with the sad story of a British couple who were robbed at knifepoint in Athens, earlier this year. Among the items taken were the couple’s phone, which was then used to run up charges of over $7,500 in a very short space of time. The cellphone company involved, Vodafone, insisted that these charges should be paid even when they knew that they were the result of crime, and it was not until both the press and telecoms regulator got involved that they decided to drop the charges. At the heart of this issue is the increase in something known as SIM-box fraud. A SIM-box is a device that houses multiple SIM cards and was at first, a method by which fraudsters could avoid international call charges by making it appear as if a call was local when in fact it was international. However, this scam has become more sophisticated due to the introduction of premium rate telephone numbers. Set up by the fraudsters, these numbers would be charged at the highest regular rate for a normal call, with part of the cost being paid to the person leasing the line. But by filling a SIM box with stolen SIM cards, a SIM box can be used to make hundreds of calls to these premium rate numbers in a very short space of time. Another case involving a theft in Spain led to almost $20,000 being spent on an account in one night. This is only the expense for the customer – because the SIM-box fools the network into thinking a call is local rather than international, the network is also losing out – which is why networks are reluctant to waive these charges. This type of fraud is on the rise in Europe and will soon start costing telecoms operators and countries huge amounts of money, as is already happening in Africa. It’s a difficult thing for consumers to prepare for. With an increasing awareness of roaming costs and better deals for travelers, many people feel confident roaming on their domestic contract SIM, but these are the SIMs that can accrue thousands of dollars in costs overnight. A pre-paid local or international SIM card only has the credit that is already on the card to spend. Roaming In Rio One of the biggest stories to come out of this year’s Olympic Games in Rio, as it turns out, was not actually true. But the galactically stupid Ryan Lochte’s tall tales have overshadowed several entirely true stories of theft, either from the Olympic Village or at knife or gunpoint in the streets. While it’s not a story of billshock, Great British track athlete Greg Rutherford had his mobile phone stolen shortly after winning a bronze medal in the long jump. The upsetting aspect of this story is that the phone was full of photos and videos of Rutherford’s young son Milo – memories that he’ll likely never see again. It’s a warning to phone users everywhere – you should regularly back-up your phone’s files to the cloud or to another storage device. Meanwhile, a rookie error from Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura almost saw him having to pay up to $5,000 in roaming charges for playing Pokemon Go in Rio. The gymnast did not check the rates for Rio, and thought he was paying a flat roaming fee for data, when he most assuredly was not. Once again, press interest in the story meant that his carrier was prepared to dramatically lower the fee, but others might not be so lucky.

At Least They’re Trying (Some of them)

With roaming now being in the international consciousness, various companies around the world are taking steps to ensure that customers don’t overspend. They introduce caps on daily mobile data usage, warning texts and are widening the range of countries that people can visit on their domestic SIM. For operators moving into new markets, dealing with potential billshock issues can generate a lot of goodwill, which is exactly the case in India. Vodafone have just launched there, and have announced that they waive any excessive data charges experienced by first time customers. Meanwhile, some users from the UK on O2’s network are unhappy with their service – not because they’ve spent too much, but because they’ve used too little. Many operators offer a flat daily fee for mobile use abroad, usually in the form of a ‘bolt-on’ (although only JT can claim that they managed to get Michael Bolt-on to advertise their deals). However, many customers are finding that this is not what they want – especially with people being charged more than $2.50 per day for a single text message. North of the border, things have reached breaking point. Sick of suffering some of the worst roaming rates in the world, customers in Quebec, Canada have launched a class-action lawsuit against telecoms operators there. We will be keeping a close eye on this lawsuit as it develops and will bring you the latest updates.