Investigation Unit: Cellphone Surprises

For Lee Frankel, the world is his office. 

He introduces college students to the beauty of places like London and Madrid.

It was a picture perfect career until incoming pictures and messages from his family delivered costly charges while on a recent business trip to Canada.

"I could hear in my pocket the ding, ding, ding as the texts kept coming in and the photos kept coming in," said Frankel.

For more than 20 cute pictures of his son, Lee was charged close to $70 in roaming fees.

And Lee never even opened the pictures when he was abroad.

Frankel said, "I don't think it is fair. I think the fees are exorbitant. I have been given the excuse that they have to pay the cellphone provider abroad to use the network."

Here's the international hang-up: if your cellphone is on, your data is still being delivered.

And since you are out of the country, even if you never use your phone you are being charged international roaming fees for any incoming data. 

Rod Davis from the council of Better Business Bureaus said, "It can be shocking. Consumers have their phones on, they think if I don't take an email, if I don't look at any of my IMs, I am not going to incur any roaming fees, but they do and we have seen some bills in the upwards of hundreds of dollars."
During this past year, The Better Business Bureau has received more than 27,000 complaints about cellphone companies, many from customers who were hit with unexpected roaming fees.

The FCC is getting an earful, too.

Mindel De La Torre, FCC Chief of the International Bureau said, "There was one particular complaint that was over $65,000. That is more than a lot of people make in a whole year."

The FCC and Better Business Bureau plan to work with cellphone companies to prevent "bill shock."

But they say this is not a blame game, it's more of a communication breakdown.

"I think it would be very helpful for them to have documents to send out to consumers in every case just outlining how the international coverage works," said Davis.

Many cellphone providers send alert warnings to customers when they are entering roaming areas.

Some actions for you to take: have your cellphone company turn off your data while you're gone, rent a phone or buy a sim card from the country you are visiting so that you are charged their local rates, and look into international plans.

"Go over the examples. Put it in plain English. If this happens, what's the cost? Find that out upfront," said Davis.

For Lee, enjoying his trip abroad would be opening those photos at home instead of unexpected charges.

"After you have gone through and you have had a great vacation that is not the kind of present you want to get when you go home," said Davis.

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