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Cellphone companies to warn as plans approach limit

October 17, 2011 8:12:54 PM PDT
You may have this happen to you -- you open your cellphone bill and it's so high you go into bill shock. A 2010 federal study says 1 out of 6 cellphone users have experienced it.

New guidelines were announced Monday to ease the shock of high bills. The joint announcement between the Federal Communications Commission, CTIA ? The Wireless Association, and Consumers Union, breaks an 18-month log jam on this issue. Wireless carriers will soon alert customers beforehand when they are in danger of incurring costly overage charges.

Jeff Blyskal of Oakland knows firsthand the meaning of bill shock. He received a bill 150 percent of his normal bill.

"So it was very surprising and it turns out it was an overage charge of 199 minutes," he says.

Monday's new guidelines would require cell providers to alert customers both before and after they incur overage charges.

"Wireless providers are going to be sending free alerts to their subscribers to help them manage their usage and avoid unexpected overage charges," says Steve Largent with the industry trade group CTIA.

"Bill shock is a real consumer problem that needs to be fixed, and there are ways to do this easily and inexpensively, using technology that's widely available," says Julius Genachowski with the FCC.

Blyskal, who also happens to be a writer with Consumer Reports, says the new voluntary guidelines could save consumers hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

"You ordinarily, when you buy a plan, you're probably paying about 7 cents a minute. Boom, it goes through the roof once you go over," says Blyskal.

Cellphone providers are being given 12 to 18 months to fully implement the plan. The agreement covers more than 300 million wireless accounts in the country.

Verizon has already begun implementation, but it hasn't been without problems.

"They send thousands of alerts a month, but they don't always send them to every customer," says Blyskal. "So the system's not real reliable."

Verizon acknowledges problems with its system and says it can confirm when a text is successfully received. It agreed to refund Blyskal his overage charge.


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