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Family, Verizon far apart over nearly $18,000 phone bill

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By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / April 30, 2010

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DOVER — Bob and Mary St. Germain say they can’t believe it. Four years after their son, Bryan, used his cellphone to connect to the Internet, the couple is still trying to fight the bill: a nearly $18,000 tab from Verizon.

Bryan, now 26, thought his family’s plan included free data downloads. It didn’t, and in August 2006, the St. Germains’ phone bill ballooned to more than 100 times the normal amount.

“You can’t print what my husband said’’ when the bill came, Mary St. Germain said. “He was very shocked.’’

Verizon eventually offered to reduce the bill by half, but Bob St. Germain, 66, a retired marketing professional, said he rejected the offer after consulting with state utility officials who advised him not to pay. So Verizon sent the reduced bill to a collection agency.

Verizon officials said that the charges were legitimate and that they have tried to work with St. Germain to resolve the dispute.

“We go to great lengths to educate our customers on their products and services so that they avoid any unintended bills,’’ Philip Santoro, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc., and Michael Murphy, a spokes man for Verizon Wireless, wrote in an e-mailed statement.

The case highlights how confusing wireless plans can be and how any misstep can be costly for customers. Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C., said cellphone contracts have become so bewildering that he fields at least one complaint a month from customers with sky-high bills looking for help. Meinrath said what outrages him is that many carriers offer unlimited data plans for about $30 a month and are “making money off that.’’

“So how is it that they were charging $12,000 a month?’’ he asked. “How is it conceivable that is not price gouging?’’

Kevin Brannelly, an official at the state Department of Public Utilities, tried to help the St. Germain family fight the bill because it did not seem right.

“Never in my 25 years here have I seen such stubborn and senseless resistance to what is obviously a mistake,’’ he wrote in an e-mail to St. Germain.

Telecommunications experts said it is difficult to know how much it actually costs Verizon to transmit data. Verizon and other wireless companies typically do not release that information.

Srinivasan Keshav, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, said the problem is not the cost of the service, but whether the customer knows the cost. He said customers are making mistakes because they do not have the time to sort through pages of fine print to understand the terms and conditions of a plan.

What carriers are doing is akin to the government’s posting signs that the speed limit is 16.6 centimeters per millisecond, instead of 40 miles per hour, said Keshav, who testified before a 2009 US Senate hearing on excessive text-messaging charges.

“Even though it’s correct, it’s incomprehensible, even to me,’’ he said.

The St. Germains’ problem erupted in 2006, shortly after Bob St. Germain renewed his wireless phone service contract, which included his cellphone and cellphones for his son and daughter. The two-year wireless promotional period allowing free downloads had expired, and under the terms of the new contract, Verizon began charging for downloaded kilobytes.

St. Germain said his son, Bryan, a student at Framingham State College, had been tethering his cellphone to his laptop computer, using the phone to connect to the Internet because it was faster than his parents’ dial-up connection. Bryan St. Germain surfed the Web on evenings and weekends, downloading songs, when he thought minutes were free.

After the monthly bill came, and Bob St. Germain got over his shock, he saw that his son had downloaded 816,000 kilobytes, a unit of data storage capacity, at a cost of $12,233.

St. Germain said he called Verizon to see if it was a mistake and got more bad news: His son had downloaded another 375,000 kilobytes of data at a cost of $5,600 that he would be charged for in his next bill.

“If there’s extreme activity on your account, they should let you know,’’ Bob St. Germain said, adding that Verizon should alert customers of big charges, as credit card companies do. “Nobody should get surprised like I did.’’

Bryan St. Germain said he felt duped, because his Verizon phone came with a “Get it Now’’ feature that allowed downloads, and he thought they were free.

“It was pretty unbelievable, seeing the bill and all the kilobytes,’’ he said.

Bob St. Germain said the agent never told him that the free promotional offer for downloads had ended when he renewed his Verizon contract.

Santoro, a spokesman for Verizon Communications, said Verizon officials noted that they informed St. Germain in notes on his account. “We made it very clear what his new plan was all about,’’ Santoro said.

Weeks after receiving his August 2006 bill, St. Germain complained to the Department of Public Utilities. State officials tried to negotiate with Verizon, using their leverage as the regulator for Verizon’s landline operations. But they were unsuccessful in part because the state has no regulatory power over wireless carriers, which are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.

St. Germain said he has not complained to the FCC, but he has filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office and sought help from two state senators.

“It’s a rat hole, you feel so helpless,’’ he said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.