If you thought your electric or natural gas bill had a whopper of an error, you wouldn't have to pay it. Same thing for a telephone landline. You wouldn't have to pay the amount in dispute, at least not while it was being investigated.
But if you disagree with your cellphone bill? There's no clear guarantee of what that dispute process looks like.
This apparent hypocracy is surfacing as a big question in the weeks after thousands of consumers nationwide stepped forward to lodge complaints about high cellphone bills. The complaints, which have flooded into The Plain Dealer and the Federal Communications Commission, mostly question bills for supposed data use, and mostly target Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest cellphone carrier.
Kerrie Riddle of Springfield, Missouri, has been complaining for months to Verizon, which says her data usage has tripled. She kept increasing her plan size to avoid costly overage fees but still has overages some months. Some months, her bill is up only $30. The worst was in July, when her bill was $100 more than it used to be. She and her husband need their cellphone. They don't have a landline.
"They keep sucking me dry," said Riddle, who is retired. "When is enough enough?"
Like thousands of other Verizon customers, Riddle insists her cellular habits haven't changed substantially. A little bit? Maybe. But not enough that she's using triple the data she did last year. Riddle has a little online business where she buys and sells items from estate sales. Her husband is a retired state highway patrolman. They're responsible people.
"I have called Verizon many, many times," she said. "Last month, I was literally balling my eyes out on the phone . . . It's just greed. How much money can they suck out of people?
"When you call them, they just say, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do for you."
How to get answers from Verizon
Consumers who want to dig into their data usage should politely ask Verizon customer service for an explanation of their usage.
Make sure you're speaking with a Verizon employee, not a contractor.
Tell them you've read newspaper stories proving that Verizon can look up usage by IP address for individual customers.
Tell them they can get the IP address out of their MARS system. They may say they can't, but they can.
Tell them you'd like them to do that for you please.
Be nice. Be pleasant. Don't be nasty or sarcastic. Tell them you're desperate and you need help.
Tell them you're just not paying your bill until Verizon tells you what they're charging you for.
Tell them if you don't get resolution, you're going to file a complaint with the FCC. Then do it if necessary.
Second, Saunders said, ""It is not clear which agency would have jurisdiction over this issue." She noted that consumers can file formal complaints with the FCC, as well as the Federal Trade Commission.
People have been doing that, in droves. And people who have filed complaints with the FCC are getting responses, in many cases.
It's interesting that cellular companies aren't regulated like other utilities. In Ohio, for example, utilities that provide electricity, natural gas and landline phone service are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Cellular companies? Nope, not so much, said PUCO spokesman Matt Schilling. "We don't regulate wireless," he said.
But if you or I received an electric bill or gas bill that was $100 or $500 or $1,000 more than we thought it should be, we could call the PUCO. If we lodged an informal complaint, the PUCO would mediate a resolution, Schilling said.
If that didn't work, we could file a formal complaint, which would mean we could avoid paying the disputed amount while it was being investigated. That means we wouldn't have to pay immediately and our service wouldn't be disconnected, Schilling said.
If it turned out that we did in fact owe the entire bill, then the PUCO requires utility companies to offer payment plans without penalties.
One might argue that a cellphone isn't as important as electricity or natural gas or a landline phone. However, 47 percent of U.S. households have only cellular service, not a landline, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Mark Durbin, spokesman for FirstEnergy Corp. in Akron, said a two- or three-page electric bill is generally easier to understand than a cellular bill that can be 15 or 20 or 25 pages.
That aside, FirstEnergy is committed to working with customers on possible billing errors or bills that are accurate but too large to handle in one month. "If it's contested, we won't issue a shut office notice," he said. "We are more than willing to work with customers."
The utility will help the customer try to explore reasons a bill might have gone up: a space heater than ran too much, a teenager who ran the air conditioning too much, a faulty meter, etc. "We try to help the customer find a reason it might have gone up. We try to come to a resolution," Durbin said.
Customers of Verizon Wireless, however, say the company has a different mode of operation. When customers call, Verizon doesn't treat the whopper bill as an anomaly.
"Every time you call, they want to blame you. And then they want to sell you another plan with more data," Riddle said.
That's what Cassandra Smith of Kentwood, Michigan, did -- buy more data.
"Since the beginning of the year, we have increased our gigabytes from 10 per month to 24 per month, and that still isn't enough," said Smith, whose family has three phones. "Our phone bills has gone up by $80 per month just for the regular data and then we have the overage charges on top of that." The bill for mid-July through mid-August was the worst, at $805. That's $555 in overages.
"We contacted Verizon and they said they can't do anything about the extra charges," she said. "The only thing they would do is place the new feature on our account (safety mode) that slows our data down if we go over. I have looked at the times data was reportedly used and it was early am times that didn't make sense."
In early September, Verizon rolled out its "safety mode" feature to all customers who have one of the newer data plans. This means that when a customer reaches his data limit, he still has access to data for the remainder of the billing cycle. But it's at a much slower rate -- 128 kilobytes per second. Some people say it's like the old days of using a computer on dial-up internet service.
But the prospect of no overage fees is definitely welcomed by many Verizon customers. Verizon spokesman Steve Van Dinter was asked on Sept. 9 that if the "safety mode" feature that Verizon is touting is such a great service for customers, then why isn't offered to all customers, not just those with new plans? He said he would find out the answer. The company hasn't responded to that or more than a dozen other questions in the last month.
Some experts say the root of the problem is that cellular service has evolved from a luxury to a necessity, now that nearly half of households have a cellphone but not a landline.
Colleen Boothby, a telecommunications regulatory lawyer in Washington D.C., said regulations say that "telephone bills must contain clear and conspicuous disclosure of any information that the subscriber may need to make inquiries about, or contest, charges on the bill."
Yet data usage is intangible. Cellular bills aren't like medical bills that are itemized, or like car repair bills that are itemized. There's no breakdown of the data usage, by amount or date.
"I'm a telecom regulatory attorney, and I can't figure out my phone bill,'' said Boothby, a former lawyer for the FCC. "It's stacked against the customer.''
A former Verizon technical service worker said consumers should know that wireless companies have the records, they just don't disclose them to the customer. Consumers who want to dig into their usage should politely ask Verizon customer service for an explanation of their data usage.
"Tell them you know they can look up usage by IP address," said the former worker, who doesn't want to be identified. "Tell them you'd like them to do that please. Tell them they can get the IP address out of their MARS system. They may say they can't, but they can."
Plain Dealer reporter John Caniglia contributed to this report.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.
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