SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- If travel takes you overseas, and you want to use a cell phone, how can you make it easy and affordable? A North Bay family thought they had it figured out -- until their cell phone company interrupted their trip, warning they'd racked up major roaming charges and their service would be cut off.
The family of three say they carried their cellphones in their pockets the whole time, just in case of emergencies -- yet somehow they'd racked up hundreds of dollars in roaming charges over just a couple of days. How did that happen?
Daniel Bacon of San Rafael, his wife and their son were enjoying a blissful two and a half weeks in Greece.
"It was a lovely trip; we had actually a really fabulous time," he said.
"We did a seven day boat trip out to the islands... some really awesome places," Bacon said.
Everything went smoothly... right up until the fifth day there. Bacon got an alarming text message from Consumer Cellular.
"They said, 'We're cutting you off.' It was an utter shock to us," he said.
The wireless provider warned they'd already racked up $500 in roaming charges -- and to protect against more fees, their service would be cut off.
"I don't think we ever used the phone, and we had very very few texts, so I have no idea why we would have built up a $500 dollar bill," Bacon said.
The family had made a point not to use any data, saying they carried their phones only in case of an emergency back home.
"It was in our back pockets, right? I mean we were just walking around with it. In case my wife's 85-year-old mother needed to contact us," Bacon said.
They called Consumer Cellular, who agreed to keep the service going -- but how did they rack up all those charges without knowing it?
"The agent on the phone said, 'You're using data even when you're walking around and not actively using your phone," Bacon said.
The agent pointed out smartphone apps use data even when no one's using them. It's because they refresh in the background, updating content like new emails or social media posts.
The company said the family also may be unknowingly using data for texts or calls.
Consumer Cellular advises customers to put phones in airplane mode while abroad and only use Wi-Fi to connect to services.
Smartphones also let you turn off background refresh in the settings tab, or turn off cellular data entirely.
"They suggested we keep our phones on airplane mode... it certainly didn't tell us our phones were using data when they were in our back pockets," Bacon said.
Consumer Cellular's CEO Edward Evans responded personally to our inquiries about the charges, saying, "People are always floored by surprise charges and it's an issue that we are always dealing with, industry wide. The rates in the United States are low compared to international rates for roaming in Europe or Asia. You can easily run up thousands of dollars in data charges. Industry-wide, there needs to be more clarity for consumers."
He advises customers to avoid the high charges by swapping their SIM cards for one in the country they are visiting, paying cheaper local rates. That would mean using the phone number assigned to the foreign SIM card.
Evans said Consumer Cellular simply enables international calling on its U.S. phones but doesn't receive payment for the roaming data. He said it is only passing on charges from the international carriers.
As for Bacon, Consumer Cellular cut his data charges by half as a courtesy.
"I deeply appreciate 7 On Your Side going to bat for me... kudos to you and much appreciated," Bacon said.
Bacon wants Consumer Cellular to warn customers sooner when data charges are racking up. Evans is considering stronger warnings to customers before they travel about potential roaming charges.
Check out our how-to video showing how you can avoid roaming charges while visiting a foreign country.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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