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Verizon Wireless’ $50 Million Dollar Oopsy: Refunds Coming for Those $1.99 ‘Mystery Data Charges’

Phillip Dampier October 4, 2010 Consumer News, Data Caps, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband 3 Comments

Verizon, the nation’s largest wireless phone company, has agreed to refund erroneous data charges for 15 million subscribers who paid for data sessions they did not initiate.

Those familiar with the proposed refund settlement claim the company could spend between $50-90 million in refunds for customers without data plans who were charged, in some cases repeatedly, $1.99 for a few seconds of web access.

The problem stems from Verizon phones that make accessing data services easy to trigger.  One misplaced button press can launch a data session, resulting in a web access fee.  Verizon repeatedly denied the company was charging customers who accidentally landed on the provider’s wireless home page, but customers loudly claimed otherwise, filing hundreds of complaints against Verizon with the Federal Communications Commission.

Teresa Dixon Murray, a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, was among the first to report on the mysterious charges many customers couldn’t figure out, especially as they continued even for customers who placed a “block” on accessing data services or who had powered their phones off and were still charged the fees:

In a column last summer, I chronicled my battle with Verizon after I discovered Verizon had been concocting $1.99 monthly charges for supposed Web use by my family plan numbers. Verizon’s ruse ended the month that my son’s phone was dead and locked away for weeks.

Verizon responded directly to me in a meeting with several top executives, and they promised to investigate the problems suffered by thousands of customers nationwide. The company in August also promised to change its policy of charging customers if they accidentally hit their phone’s “mobile Web” button. The new policy: To get charged, customers now supposedly have to type in a Web address.

A Verizon Wireless employee anonymously told the New York Times the scheme was a planned money-maker for Verizon, which earned up to $300 million a month just from accidental web access:

“The phone is designed in such a way that you can almost never avoid getting $1.99 charge on the bill. Around the OK button on a typical flip phone are the up, down, left, right arrows. If you open the flip and accidentally press the up arrow key, you see that the phone starts to connect to the web. So you hit END right away. Well, too late. You will be charged $1.99 for that 0.02 kilobytes of data. NOT COOL. I’ve had phones for years, and I sometimes do that mistake to this day, as I’m sure you have. Legal, yes; ethical, NO.

“Every month, the 87 million customers will accidentally hit that key a few times a month! That’s over $300 million per month in data revenue off a simple mistake!

“Our marketing, billing, and technical departments are all aware of this. But they have failed to do anything about it—and why? Because if you get 87 million customers to pay $1.99, why stop this revenue? Customer Service might credit you if you call and complain, but this practice is just not right.

“Now, you can ask to have this feature blocked. But even then, if you one of those buttons by accident, your phone transmits data; you get a message that you cannot use the service because it’s blocked–BUT you just used 0.06 kilobytes of data to get that message, so you are now charged $1.99 again!

“They have started training us reps that too many data blocks are being put on accounts now; they’re actually making us take classes called Alternatives to Data Blocks. They do not want all the blocks, because 40% of Verizon’s revenue now comes from data use. I just know there are millions of people out there that don’t even notice this $1.99 on the bill.”

Verizon’s decision to refund the erroneous data charges also comes long after a class action lawsuit was filed earlier this year against the company by Goldman Scarlato & Karon, P.C., of behalf of customers.

Impacted existing customers can expect credits, typically ranging from $2-6 on their October or November bills.  Former customers will get refund checks in the mail.

The Federal Communications Commission said it was opening an investigation into the Verizon overcharges, seeking a financial penalty from the wireless carrier, according to Reuters.

The news agency noted some customers were billed for data fees just because of software pre-loaded onto phones:

The charges affected customers who did not have data usage plans, but were billed because of exchanges initiated by software built into their phones.

For example, trying out a demonstration of a game that Verizon Wireless had pre-loaded onto a phone would sometimes trigger data transmissions from the phone unbeknownst to the customers who were then charged by Verizon Wireless for the data.

[flv width=”480″ height=”380″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WPRI Providence Verizon To Pay Millions In Refunds 10-4-10.flv[/flv]

WPRI-TV in Providence covers the Verizon overcharges, pondering ‘why did it take more than two years for refunds?’  (3 minutes)

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10 years ago

How much money did they rake in on these “phantom” charges and they are going to refund only 60-90 million? I would bet they took in more than that.

10 years ago

My local newspaper stated that you will only be reimbursed if you make a complaint! They are not refunding everything and everybody – only those who do the research and find out home much they were charged total for the last 3 years. With only 1 year of statements on their website I could only find 3 times in the past year, so a total of $6. And yes I am still going to put in a complaint for the $6 I was charged.

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