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New rules to stop $150k phone bill surprises

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Risky business ... using your mobile phone overseas can lead to massive bills.

Risky business ... using your mobile phone overseas can lead to massive bills.

Telcos will have to warn consumers of exact mobile charges while they are roaming and provide tools to monitor and manage their usage under new rules proposed on Thursday by the communications regulator.

The new draft international mobile roaming standard from the Australian Communications and Media Authority follows reports that complaints about disputed roaming charges increased by almost 70 per cent in 2011-12 to more than 4100.

"We want the carriers to significantly lift their game on the whole transparency piece to give the consumers clear messages at the right time and the right warnings about costs, and then also to give them the tools they need to actually manage those costs," ACMA member Chris Cheah said.

"We don't think it's that hard and they should be able to do it."

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said Australian consumers were being "gouged" by telcos and slugged with "unacceptable", "outrageous" charges.

The complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman include a consumer who bought a $129 monthly plan so she could make calls during a nine-week holiday in Europe, only to return to a bill of $75,000 bill, which subsequently increased to $147,908.

Another consumer, while on holiday in South Africa, thought his mobile phone was connected to the hotel's Wi-Fi, so he used it to connect a laptop to the internet, but ended up with a $38,000 bill.

Mobile roaming complaints to the Ombudsman, Simon Cohen, represented about $8 million in disputed charges over the past 15 months and Mr Cohen said consumers were not being fully informed about the potential for extremely high charges and how they could protect themselves.

The authority proposed a new standard on Thursday to resolve this issue, which will be in place by May.

Mr Cheah said telcos would be required to send an SMS to customers when they arrive overseas to warn them of higher costs, and follow up soon after with another SMS detailing the prices for a two-minute call to Australia, a two-minute call in the overseas country, the cost of an SMS and the cost of 1MB of data.

"People know the [roaming] charges are higher but they don't realise how much higher," Mr Cheah said.

Telcos would also be required to provide a low-cost way to stop roaming at any time and provide tools allowing people to monitor their usage and obtain running estimates of their costs. This sort of monitoring traditionally has been difficult because usage data is not immediately available from overseas carriers, but ACMA believes it has a solution.

"The providers of roaming services could offer their smartphone customers an app which makes use of the features of the phone which track data being sent and received by the phone, to give an approximation of the likely cost based on the charges in that country," Mr Cheah said.

People were racking up bills of $100,000-plus because smartphones increasingly were chewing through data in the background even without user input (such as downloading emails), and applications such as maps generally used a lot of data to begin with, he said.

"Applications are constantly communicating back to the network. [They] will often poll to see what's happening, they'll download emails. Sometimes emails will have big attachments and that could all be happening in the background and people don't realise that this is racking up a huge bill," he said.

Consumer group Choice said those heading overseas for the holidays should consider buying a local pre-paid SIM card when they arrive at their destination, and use free wireless hotspots where possible.

ACMA is inviting the public to make submissions about its proposals by mid-February.

Providing more information to consumers on costs will not solve the core problem, which is the huge roaming costs charged by carriers.

ACMA is not able to regulate roaming charges directly because they usually are levied by overseas carriers and these costs are then passed on by the Australian telcos to their customers.

Senator Conroy has started working towards a solution.

In August he announced in partnership with his New Zealand counterpart that they were working on ways to reduce trans-Tasman mobile roaming charges.

But a solution for the rest of the world at this stage remains a pipe dream.

60 comments

  • How about as well as having to tell consumers how much the costs would be, stop gouging on the prices as well. It is very difficult to see how someone could have racked up $38k worth of internet downloads or $147k worth of phone calls during a trip to Europe.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    December 13, 2012, 2:03PM
    • Legislation is required here. This is complete nonsense.

      Commenter
      luke
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 3:40PM
    • How's that facebook working for you now?

      Commenter
      The Write Stuff
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 4:16PM
    • c'mon... its not legislation required! seriously! why? its the individuals stupidity...

      Commenter
      James
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 6:26PM
    • Telco's have proven they can not be trusted. We need legislation to limit default credit to say $500 after which the service is suspended unless the customer agrees to a higher limit.

      You can bet your bottom dollar none of these customers had any idea that they could ever get a bill into the thousands of dollars from their phone provider, let alone $100K or more.

      Commenter
      peter
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 9:33PM
    • What is even worse is the likes of Vodaphone will do this.......even tho Vodaphone owns or operates multiple networks in various countries across New Zealand, Asia, Europe and the UK. When consumer groups often complain companies like these say "we only pass on what other companies charge'. Well if you own both networks then the cost surely is negligible and your passing on the cost from one division to another!!!!! PLUS, calls from landline to landline overseas back to Australia is peanuts. Calls on mobiles in a home country is relatively peanuts. Then what is the justification for charging like a wounded bull just because something is a mobile connecting into the network (handled by computers), linking across the world on cables or satellite which would normally cost peanuts, all connected by computers that already exist. Surely mobile phone company executives are not that stupid not to release if data and call charges were more reasonable we would all use our mobiles overseas instead of buying local SIM cards or phone cards.

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Location
      Elwood.
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 10:18PM
    • The article tells you that the ACMA are proposing making telco's notify customers of charges.

      It also tells you how people incurred these crazy charges. Did you actually read the article ?

      Commenter
      Mark S
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 14, 2012, 5:35AM
  • Is society so bereft of minimal intelligence that they do not understand it will cost more overseas? It is in the press every other day, so morons cannot plead ignorance. $100,000 of data running in the background? Gillard might take us as all being fools, but I thought SMH were a little kinder to us. If you rack up a huge overseas bill, you deserve it!

    Commenter
    Seriously?
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    December 13, 2012, 2:13PM
    • No, society is not bereft of minimal intelligence.
      There is minimal intelligence all over the place, in fact it looks like the majority have minimal intelligence, and that gets proven every day with these sorts of stories.

      Commenter
      The Other Guy
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 4:07PM
    • Absoutely they should pay. Its not price gouging at all. The mere thought that $15 per MB was high is naive. We should put it up $40 as its too cheap. And while were at it lets make the price of incoming calls at mmmm say $10 per minute'. I need a 3rd BMW anyway.

      Commenter
      Bob (Phone company director)
      Location
      Syd
      Date and time
      December 14, 2012, 6:19AM

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