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Bell cuts phone service to family struggling to pay surprise $1,800 bill (cbc.ca)
49 points by nrmitchi 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

I've often wondered why there aren't laws against predatory pricing.

Things like unknowingly racking up $2,000 in cell phone charges, or $3,000 in overdraft charges of $50 each for 60 different tiny transactions when you had no idea you were over the limit.

I get that it would be hard to craft a law that worked effectively in all cases, but something as simple as for any recurring billing relationship with a consumer, any time a period's accrued billing reaches double their previous period, the consumer cannot be on the hook for additional charges unless the account holder (not user) authorizes them up to a new amount? (And for the first period, whenever it goes over, say, an average national user's spending.)

It would be up to the utility to suspend service temporarily in the meantime or not... but you could never be stuck with a surprise horrible bill because you didn't understand your iPhone was sucking up data in another country without you realizing.

I've actually used a monthly automatic pre-paid SIM card on my iPhone for years (in NYC), because it's cheaper and I know it's impossible to accrue surprise charges.

There are laws against that in Europe dedicated to telecom. Surprised it doesn't exist in the US.

It happened about a decade ago when everybody started getting a cellphone. You should have noticed if you had teenagers yourself or in your entourage with a phone.

Bills in the hundreds of dollars after a few hours of phone calls, or using some MB of data. Roaming charges were insane and could bill a thousand euros when traveling within Europe or abroad.

Some regulations came in and prohibited that. They mandated to send notifications and block billing after some ceilings.

My EU conutry requires that phone bill cannot exceed 3 times your monthly subsbription price. If you'd go above that you would need to pay in advance

Even if the US had these sort is laws, I don't think they would apply to Canada.

Probably because the US in a big country so not many people call outside of the US and there are no roaming charges within the US. In Europe, there are lots of different countries close to each other.

> Things like unknowingly racking up $2,000 in cell phone charges, or $3,000 in overdraft charges of $50 each for 60 different tiny transactions when you had no idea you were over the limit.

Was this predatory, though? Every phone contract I've signed for is pretty explicit about things like text message cost, data costs, etc.

From my perspective it seems more likely the parent's either didn't communicate that info to their daughter, or the daughter just did it anyway - both of which are parenting problems and not phone company problems.

Not to say the phone company handled it well, but the parent's signed the contract, too, so they should've had some idea.

EDIT: Now that I think about it more, I wonder if having the family on a business plan isn't part of the reason the phone company's being so stubborn about it?

> Was this predatory, though? Every phone contract I've signed for is pretty explicit about things like text message cost, data costs, etc.

Bell Canada is generally pretty bad about explaining the charges in the contract, and anecdotally I have heard many people say they were billed for things that actually didn't happen (and were able to get Bell to erase the charges with enough hours of phonecalls). It puts people under a lot of stress, even middle class people. Unlike the U.S, ordinary people in Canada have a hard time (or believe they will have a hard time) suing companies.

I've known several adults hit with big charges for overseas calls/data. It's not obvious when it's happening.

When the price charged for a thing is completely unrelated to the cost of that thing, it's going to be hard for people to intuit what they will pay for their usage of that thing - both adults and kids.

But there's no need to use intuition because the prices are spelled out in the contract.

You probably don't try to intuit the price of other products, so why would you in this case?

People don't refer to contracts often, and we intuit costs all the time. We have many services and utilities which are pay-for-what-you-use, such as gas, electric and internet. I don't know how much it's going to cost me to turn on my tv, but I have an intuition it's not enough to prevent me from doing so. I don't look at the price of most of my groceries. I just do a mental "looks about right" at the final total before paying it.

And none of this applies to a 14-year-old, who no one should expect to read a contract to figure out that normal use of a device will cost thousands of dollars a month.

IANAL and I am not Canadian, but I think in the US one could argue the contract unconscionable: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/unenforceable-contra...

Assuming ≤10,000 text messages, that's around $1,350 per MB.

Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the actions of the family in question, that seems somewhat perverse.

I think the real damning thing is: > When Bell customers sign up in advance for unlimited Canada-U.S. texting, they pay only $12 a month.

which I think shows charging $2k for a few weeks worth of texts is pretty unconscionable

I found their rate card.


Canada to US is $.40 per message sent. US to Canada is $.30 per message received.

So $.70 per two way exchange with her American friends and an $1800 bill means she had around 2600 text exchanges. Over a month that's 86 a day.

That amount of messages (86 a day) seems normal to me. It's just chat, but on a phone.

That's a domestic tariff. The article say they were on a small business contract, which is a different section of the website.

Yeah I found that later but it's .35 to send and .35 to receive so the result ended up exactly the same.

There is an error though - the bill was $2000 to begin with and $1800 after Bell gave a discount. So it was actually around 95 messages sent and 95 messages received per day.

It's interesting some people say that's a normal amount of texting for a business. Maybe for some businesses. I doubt his bricklaying business used that many, which is probably why he went for the cheapest plan he could get. They also have things like 500 texts for $5 or $7, in addition to the $12 extra for unlimited. If one doesn't make texts very often, saving the $5 or $12 can make sense. My own mobile plan charges around 11 cents per text since I don't pay for unlimited and that works for me since I do at most a dozen texts a year. I don't think these rates of .35 and such are unreasonable at all for someone who basically never texts and wants to save $12 a month. But it is a rip off that they don't just have a ceiling. Doesn't have to be at $12. Could be $100. Like the "max rate" at parking garages, so you can still get your car back. Bell obviously intentionally doesn't have a max rate coupled with intransigence regarding the contract because they regularly catch people with this scheme. Unfortunately there's no law preventing Bell's scheme at present and the guy signed a contract so he's stuck.

Holy hell, those rates are absolutely insane...

Charging for texts is such a scam, but this is exactly why when I was a teenager I was on a pre-paid plan. My parents knew I wasn't responsible enough yet to understand how charges work, and that the phone company wouldn't care.

That’s what I did to my kids for exactly that reason.

No way I’m giving teenagers a blank check, no matter how reassuring or enticing the vendors make the deals look.

Disclosure: I worked at a place tha did format, print and mail for other companies, including wireless, back in the day. Maybe not everyone is aware how these bills spin up.

Bell does this because they know they can get away with it. With barely any competition - and the other 2 companies act the exact same way - they know that people will be pissed but nobody will change carriers.

There was a large bit of media last year about cost caps and limitations. But, hey, that only covers part of your bill since Texting is a different "service". This is how Bell gets away with it. They may finally back off now that this has hit the national/international news but it shouldn't need to reach that point.

How is the teenager supposed to know her text is going to the US or is being sent from the US? Maybe she knows where her friends are and maybe she doesn't. In any case this can happen to absolutely anybody at any time. I don't know where my friends may be located at every moment of the day (I guess they take vacations sometimes). And with the constant barrage of spam I doubt I would even believe a random message telling me to pay up.

What causes a company to charge these obscene rates? Is it some loophole in “transit” costs? I am thinking something similar to the “inbound revenue” received by “free phone conference” services - these “last mile” providers have special agreements higher costs, etc..

It's a business contract. Companies seem to be a lot more hardnosed with these things about openly segmenting their offerings, and being somewhat cruel about it. I bet there's one where you can send literally 1m international texts a month for free, for example, and it costs, like, $2.50/mo more.

But these people didn't pay for that one. And so here they are.

As a business owner you are expected to be a bit more on top of this stuff.

Monopoly status in a captive market to make a certain number of individuals very rich at the expense of employees who are outsourced to third world countries and the public which pays obscene amount of money for a product that costs literally less than a penny per unit/message to produce. This sort of capitalism rustles my jimmies.

I had something like this happen with my data plan during a power outage, and Verizon called me, switched me over to a flat rate plan that covered the charge, and backdated it to eliminate the ridiculous fees.

A lot of people complain about Verizon but it is pretty good about that stuff. If you go over they will typically give you an opportunity to upgrade instead of paying the (often higher) overage fees. They even SMS you about it when you near your limit so it's not like some secret phone number you need to know to call.

Bell have every right to stick to their guns, but it seems like a really dumb decision.

Is $1800 really worth the negative press and focussing legislators on a part of the business that was not included in prior legislations?

This seems like something that Bell's Loyalty and Retention could have taken care of. I know with Telus they'll often prorate for overages --- though, I've never had anything close to this level.

So while this is on the parents, it seems silly to potentially lose a long-term client that will be paying well over that over the course of their contracts.

I have been living in the US for one and a half year now, I'm still using my French phone contract in roaming because it's cheaper than using a local one (20€/mo, data limited to 25GB in roaming).

With which company?

So very tired of this victim narrative. Simply refuse to pay the bill and sign up for another cell service.

And then the company sends it to collections, ruins your credit rating and you get harassed by collectors.

Honestly it's hard for me to feel very sympathetic to either side here.

If the unlimited CA->USA texting is $12, the phone company should ask them to sign up for it, and charge them $100 penalty and be done with it.

But on the other hand why aren't the parents keeping an eye on what their daughter's doing with her phone?

Monitoring who I was texting would've been a huge breach of trust when I was a kid.

I didn't have a cell phone until I was able to pay for my own, but I know exactly how my dad would have responded to that: "If you don't like it, pay for it yourself." And then maybe would have added something about being responsible for me until I move out.

Labour laws are very restrictive on children. If they're not allowed to work, it seems unfair to deny them rights based on their lack of income. If they're expected to pay their own way as adults would, perhaps they should receive unemployment or disability payments as adults would.

I feel like income is the wrong basis for determining how much independence a child should have.

Almost all children are given a cell phone well before the age when they can pay for it themselves nowadays. Most American children are given a cell phone by age 7.

Whether that’s a good idea or not, it’s hardly something unusual or worth comment on its own.

I'm well aware, and it doesn't change my opinion.

Until the kid gets their own, its the parent's responsibility to pay the bill and make sure it's being used appropriately.

Yes, the girl is 14 ( I mean not 6, 7 or 8 years old), she is IMHO big enough to understand that any service has a cost and that a message from Bell does concern her also.

There's no need to monitor the content of the messages in this case.

Is this the same Bell that got split in the US for anti-trust reasons?

Thankfully iMessage and soon RCS will be replacing these wasteful services.

RCS is carrier-controlled, so the scum will find a way to charge outrageous prices for it.

iMessage, Signal, Telegram, hell even WhatsApp are good because they give carriers what they deserve, aka a middle finger.

I guess I wasn't paying attention because I have no plan to ever use RCS. iMessage and Telegram for me.

Bell could have done a better job notifying them of the overages and helping them with a plan to pay but besides that I don't see the problem. They agreed to the plan terms when they signed the contract. They need to pay their bills.

$12 for unlimited texting if they did it in advance. It's perverse.

Unconscionable contracts are void.

I don't believe people's unwillingness or inability to read and understand the contracts they sign constitutes predatory business practices. Unless they were misled when signing the contract, I don't see why this is a problem. Not only are there other phone services you can use if you didn't like this pricing structure, you can also just use a non-sms based messenger, like signal or whatsapp.

Telco contracts are not (ever?) written in language parseable by non-technical people. In addition, the people selling these contracts are incentivized to mislead customers in order to make sales.

While you can make the argument that what Bell is doing is legal, the point of this discussion is to engage with the possibility that maybe it shouldn't be.

The company made multiple attempts to inform them of the problem, and they ignored it all. But they have a lot of excuses for ignoring each and every one of them. Business plan and the teen is on it. Not a good idea. Don't know the texting charges? Don't know the teen is sending thousands of texts or to who? Parents were totally negligent and should pay the full bill, and get the teen to reimburse them. Sounds like the parents realized they messed up since they were trying hard to pay this bill. But knowing there was a huge current problem and it involved the line they depend on for their business, they should have been on top of it. By the time they said they weren't checking their spam folder they already knew that they weren't getting updates on the texts about overages from their teen. When you're in trouble on something like this you need to be on top of it and not just ignore emails and texts. If you have your spam filter set up so it's deleting critical emails necessary for the existence of your business, that's your own fault as well.

All this said their texting charges must be absolutely exorbitant and this company is certainly ripping people off. But I bet their fees are disclosed in the contract, and for a business service that contract should have been read.

Undoubtedly they have internet service also and most of the texts could have been sent for free. There's dozens of services that will send texts for free. Hopefully the teen will learn to use them, or get her friends to use Facetime etc. Expensive lesson but getting off of fee based SMS text asap is going to save them money in the long run.

> Parents were totally negligent and should pay the full bill, and get the teen to reimburse them.

That’s just awful. You‘re a terrible person.

That's a bit much. He's not wrong, and you disagree with his posting. That doesn't make him a terrible person, and certainly doesn't make you a better person for opposing it.

So, please, leave insulting people out of the thread.

> The company made multiple attempts to inform them of the problem, and they ignored it all.

nope, they informed a phone on the plan, not the account holder. the phone happened to be the daughter's, who ignored it.

if I were on a corporate phone plan, and warnings for the $40 and $65 mark, or whatever they were, came through, i'd probably ignore it too.

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