Consumers can rack up hundreds or even thousands of dollars on their bills, without realizing it. Now, cellphone carriers have agreed to warn customers when they're about to incur extra charges. But carriers have until next April to put an alert system in place. So bill shock can still happen and for one woman, it just did.
"They said it was $8,000 and I was furious," said Joanne Kelleher.
Kelleher of San Lorenzo was having an extreme case of bill shock. T-Mobile suddenly told her she owed $8,000 for making dozens of calls to a place she never called -- Honduras.
"I said, 'What are you talking about? I have never made an international call in my life," said Kelleher.
The next bill was even more shocking. It showed even more calls to Honduras and now the charges had grown to $12,000. Kelleher realized what happened. Her son is on her family plan and he was playing in a rock band when his phone fell out of his pocket. He later found the battery and figured the phone was useless. It wasn't.
"Somebody found it and made $8,000 worth of international calls," said Kelleher.
Scores of calls were made to Honduras on her bill. Kelleher admits she should have reported the lost phone, but says T-Mobile should have alerted her about the unusual charges, too.
"Why weren't they calling me when it got to $500 or $1,000? I mean, $8,000?" said Kelleher. "All they kept saying was, 'Well, we would like to work with you. How much could you pay a month?' And I thought why am I paying anything?"
Bill shock was becoming so widespread that the federal government was considering laws to mandate warnings to customers. But instead, carriers made an agreement last year with the Federal Communications Commission. From now on it will send alerts when customers are about to exceed their limits for phone calls, texting, data use and international roaming.
However, the carriers have until October to begin sending out the messages and until April before they must be sending alerts for all four services. Those warnings would have saved Kelleher a lot of grief. T-Mobile cut off her service and she was on the hook for $12,000.
"And I thought 'I'm calling Channel 7 because I know you guys have helped other people before," said Kelleher.
We contacted T-Mobile and the company looked into her case and decided not to charge her for all those calls after all.
The company said, "T-Mobile regrets any inconvenience this may have caused the Kelleher family. Once we determined the calls were not made by anyone connected with the account, we waived all associated fees."
"Oh my gosh, I was so relieved, so relieved. I can't even tell you," said Kelleher.
To protect yourself from unauthorized phone calls, lock your handset with a passcode. And immediately report any loss or theft, even if your phone seems to be broken.