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Why are we still hearing about “shock” mobile phone bills?

By December 12, 2014 No Comments

An article on the BBC News website caught my eye this morning, saying that consumers whose mobile phones get stolen are “still” receiving “shock bills” when the thieves dial premium rate numbers they’ve set up from stolen mobiles at the expense of the poor victim, who often hadn’t bothered to report the phone as stolen for many hours or even days.

It reminded me of a BBC Watchdog report from a few weeks ago where someone had their phone stolen so logged into their online account and did a “remote lock” or “remote wipe” of the physical phone handset itself (a very good idea) – but didn’t bother telling their service provider about the theft, and was still surprised to be held accountable for the use of their SIM by the crooks.

Now, maybe it’s because I work in Telecoms so understand these things a little bit better than most, but to me it’s fairly obvious that if someone were to steal my car, I’d expect them to add some miles to the clock on my car and use up the expensive petrol in my tank, costing me money. It’s a similar story with mobile phones, except you’re in a far better situation here because you can cancel the SIM card with your operator and stop any charges being racked up in your name! (This isn’t always the case if the network messes up, but they should admit their mistake and not hold you liable.)

So what’s going wrong? Why are consumers getting confused when they get these bills in?

I think there are two issues here, and the first (and this view may be unpopular) is that it’s partly the consumers’ fault as they need to take more responsibility and interest in the contractual and financial agreement they’ve undertaken with the mobile operators. We used to hear all the time of people signing up for mobile contracts, not giving a second thought to how much it costs to use them abroad, making calls and browsing the internet willy-nilly whilst on holiday and then crying foul when the bill came in. Well call me harsh, but if you can’t be bothered to check the price of something before using it then it’s your own silly fault if you get a big bill. No-one gets to the toll plaza on the M6 Toll and says, “oh I didn’t bother reading the sign with the price, can you let me through for free please?”

It’s not rocket science. People making good use of services to remotely wipe or lock a smartphone need to take a minute to understand what it is they’re actually doing and to realise that if the smartphone itself is blocked, what’s to stop the crook taking the SIM card out, putting it in another phone, and then racking up a big bill whilst they can? Yes by all means block the handset to protect your private data on-board, but understand that’s not all you need to do.

The second thing I think is going wrong is that we have to – unfortunately – accept that many people will not accept their own responsibility in this so, as a lesser of two evils, it needs to be forced on them a bit more to ensure they understand. We’re made to have formal lessons and a test before we can drive a car, but there’s no such equivalent in the world of consumer technology so perhaps we could do this as an alternative:

I propose that it is made VERY obvious to customers how the basic concepts work and they should be made to read an explanation of all of the above and sign to say they’ve understood before the contact goes live. I’m not talking about the 30,000 word Ts & Cs that no-one reads, I’m talking about a very simple (think primary-school simple) guide which tells them what a SIM card is, how they’re liable for the use of their phone etc. etc. and if they don’t follow the basic and reasonable procedures, what ramifications they should expect.

We need to get out of this situation where so many consumers are using these devices and services that they really have no clue about. If we take action on both sides (provider and consumer) then no-one should be “shocked” if they receive a big bill, partly because these big bills will also be a thing of the past.

Paul Freeman-Powell

Paul Freeman-Powell

Paul (@paulfp) is the main presenter of the award-winning Switched On Network YouTube Channel, which covers a variety of interesting topics usually relating to his love of technology and all things geeky. He also founded and runs Innobella Media, where he leads in all aspects of video production, video editing, sound & lighting. A father of 3 children including twins, his hobbies used to include photography, playing the drums and cycling. With a degree in Modern European Languages, Paul speaks French, Spanish and a little bit of Italian, and holds dual British & Irish citizenship.

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