What are your chances of getting zapped by cellular bill shock, an unexpectedly high monthly bill often resulting from voice, text, or data overages? A new Consumer Reports survey conducted just last month for our upcoming annual report on cellular service found that, in the past 12 months, a whopping one in five Consumer Reports Online subscribers received a bill that was significantly higher than they expected. Our survey of more than 58,000 subscribers was conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
That figure is at odds with what big cell carriers told us when we reported about this issue only last May, before we had our own survey data. "I can tell you that it’s a very, very small percentage," said Nancy Stark, a Verizon spokesperson. "It’s a very, very, very low percentage," said Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesperson.
Also, a Federal Communications Commission survey discovered a smaller incidence than we found among our readers: Just one person in six is ever bill-shocked, according to the FCC survey. The surprise bills for a third of the FCC group were at least $50, while they were $100 or more for 23 percent.
Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, supports the FCC proposal. "People should not be blindsided by these surprise charges on their bill," said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy and Consumers Union’s Washington, D.C. office, in remarks today after the FCC’s announcement of its proposal. "We think that’s wrong, and we are worried that the problem is getting worse," said Bloom.
"At a minimum, we support providing all consumers with free and timely 'usage alerts.' It is important to let consumers know when they are getting close to a specified limit on data service, or they are about to run up steep roaming charges. We also think it is critical for consumers to know how much they will be charged for going over their allotted time," said Bloom.
Some carriers, such as AT&T and US Cellular, do offer some alerts. We'll report about overages in greater detail in our upcoming report on cellular service and phones, which will post to this site in December. Following is an excerpt from today’s FCC’s press release, in which the agency suggests rules for wireless carriers to help prevent their customers from experiencing bill shock:
- Over-the-Limit Alerts: Consumers that have limited bundles of voice, text, and/or data can incur expensive overage charges when their cap is exceeded. Without constant monitoring, these charges quickly add up—particularly with “family plans” where multiple people share the same bundle. The FCC’s proposed rules would require customer notification, such as voice or text alerts, when approaching and having reached monthly limits that will result in overage charges.
- Out-of-the-Country Alerts: Many American customers don't know that their "unlimited" minutes, texts, or data plans only cover use within U.S. borders. Consumers can see their bills skyrocket when they travel abroad because of the additional fees for "roaming" on a foreign mobile network. The FCC's proposed rules would require mobile providers to notify customer when they are about to incur international or other roaming charges that are not covered by their monthly plans, and if they will be charged at higher-than-normal rates.
- Easy-to-Find Tools: Many wireless providers use some technological tools to alert consumers about their bills. For example, iPad users automatically receive text alerts when they are about to go over their data limits. But these tools are not widely available and too many consumers don't know about them. The FCC's proposed rules would require clear disclosure of any tools offered by mobile providers to set usage limits or review usage balances. The FCC is also asking whether all carriers should be required to offer the option of capping usage based on limits set by the consumer.