Apple Customer Becomes Victim Of "It Just Works" Complacency

We hate to say this, but in the interest of fairness we must: sometimes it really is the customer’s fault. A man took his three iPhones out of the country, and now he’s got a $4800 roaming bill because he didn’t turn them off and they kept checking for email. Well, he didn’t turn them off off. You know, there’s standby off and off off. Or maybe you didn’t know? It’s all in the Apple iPhone User Guide—we just looked at it online and it’s right there on page 14: how to put your phone in standby (which just turns off the screen) and how to shut it off completely.

Or you can check out pages 49 and 50, where it shows you how to disable an email account temporarily or permanently so that it doesn’t check for messages. Or look at page 94, where it explains the airplane mode: ‘When airplane mode is on… no cell phone, radio, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth signals are emitted from iPhone. You can’t make calls, send or receive text messages, stream YouTube videos, or get stock quotes, map locations, or weather reports.”

Our point isn’t to be smart-asses about someone’s dumb mistake, since we all make those every week. (The folks at Slashdot are going back and forth about whether or not he should be held responsible.) But it’s interesting to see Apple’s “it just works” sensibility brought to its logical conclusion. We suspect the greater their market share grows, the more we’ll see supposedly “anti-Apple” stories like this, brought on by cheerfully oblivious consumers.

“AT&T is cruising for a bruising” [The Inquirer via Slashdot via a reader tip]

iPhone User Manual


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  1. coan_net says:

    You would think Apple would notice if a bill is getting that large… lets say after the first $500 of charges and step in and either try to contact the user, or disable it or something until they find out those charges are wanted.

    Heck – My credit card will do that for me if I go on a spending spree of over $200 in 1 day. Actually that is very nice since I know if my card is lost/stolen, not much will get charged.

  2. enm4r says:

    Standby isn’t off. It isn’t called “standby off” and it’s not really that hard of a concept. There is one off, and you don’t incur charges when it’s off.

    Computers draw power when they’re in sleep mode, no one complains about that. Sleep/Standby aren’t off, and that’s exactly why they aren’t called off to begin with.

  3. travisw says:

    In the immortal words of Carlos Mencia, “De de de”

  4. DeeJayQueue says:

    this is the kind of thing that happens when you sell a pretty advanced piece of electronics to a huge mass of people with varying degrees of proficiency. These are not computer users, they’re Joe and Jane average. Though these days they’re becoming one and the same there’s still a big gap between what we as everyday computer users find intuitive and what borderline luddites will be able to plunk through.

    How many people out there still have a mother or uncle or other relative who just can’t quite grok email? Or who still uses AOL because “they’re just used to it”? These are the people buying iPhones, the people who know how to use a computer because they’ve memorized the keystrokes or specific buttons they click on every day, instead of learning how a computer system works so they can adapt if it changes.

  5. goodguy812 says:

    i would think that apple would credit him something. because if it was me, there would be no way possible to pay that. and it would just sit on my bureau as charge off and they would lose money instead of giving my a one-time break and then still recieve my monthly payments, keep me in the books as a customer.

    when a phone bill becomes more expensive than a mortgage payment. its time to bring in some regulation. to think anyone would have purposely opted to do this is unquestionable. wheres the loyalty to their customers.

  6. jpp123 says:

    If you want to use the phone as a iPod and do Wifi without the risk of roaming charges just take the sim card out. It works fine that way as a WiFi enabled PDA.

  7. MyCokesBiggerThanYours says:

    Maybe when you start roming on your phone AT&T should send you a free message sauing “Hey, you are roaming. You choose whether you want email or text.

  8. goodguy812 says:

    when this happend to me at sprint with a $400 bill over internet usage, i contacted the manager at the store where i had bought the phone, explained that yes i was unaware how this worked, it was my fault, but that this is more than my car payment and about the same as rent, and there was no possibly way to pay it on my budget, they removed the charges, no other questions asked. i was more than satisfied

  9. boandmichele says:

    @travisw: who did he steal that from?

    (sorry, i had to)

  10. matt1978 says:

    Why should they warn you? Jeez, take some responsibility for your actions or inactions

  11. sncreducer says:

    So, this guy’s a jackass for not turning his phone off, but Consumerist spent the better part of last week helping iPhone early adopters whine about a price drop that was not fradulent or illegal, just inconvenient.

    Does not compute.

  12. dialing_wand says:

    What MATT1978 said.

    What SNCREDUCER said.

    And now: It would be nice (if not in the company’s best interest) that you could setup your account preferences such that you would be warned by text message if you are using data out of your carrier’s service are.

    A good idea for a third party iPhone app.

  13. forwarddeployed says:

    I don’t fault Apple for this problem, as much as I do the firmware for the product. On most phones, you can tell the phone which networks to access for updates, etc., or simply turn the feature off completely. This is not as easy to do on an iPhone. Whereas I can take one of my other Nokia phones and tell it to only access web based services using local WLAN or T-Mobile Internet in the USA only (and allowing me to continue using the voice part of the phone), the data turn-off feature on the iPhone is much more difficult to access.

  14. goodguy812 says:

    i side with the customer. sprint sends me a text for free telling me when i get within %10 of my spending limit. which is capped by me at $200. (after my first fiasco which i mentioned in previous post)

  15. rubyist says:

    Don’t confuse Apple with AT&T. Apple makes the phone, but all those charges are coming from some piece of crap cell carrier – roaming is AT&T’s charge. The device being “ready” when you need it is a good thing, being gouged and raped by phone companies is a bad thing.

    I do agree, though, it’s his own fault and he deserves nothing but a big fat $4800 bill.

  16. warf0x0r says:

    @coan_net: It would be funny if they emailed his phone to let him know that he was exceeding a certain dollar amount, which would just contribute to the amount of money he would end up owing…

    On a more positive note, you should be able to set bill limits in which after a certain dollar amount, without user intervention, your account will deactivate until your next billing cycle. I think they’re doing that with “kid” accounts now.

  17. Brad2723 says:

    The real problem here is how much cell-phone companies charge for data access. Especially when roaming over seas. The data plan does not cover roaming in Europe, however the markup is well over 1000% when they are charging you $10+ per megabyte.

  18. tcp100 says:

    Maybe AT&T does have the ability to set spending limits, like Sprint. The customer would have to call up and ask first.. And please don’t say it should be set by default, the difference of “a lot of money” on roaming is completely different to different people. Some folks might consider it $10, some $100.

    If AT&T shut off peoples phones once they hit $100 in roaming charges, no doubt people would be complaining about that, too.. “My iPhone disconnected for no reason!”

    I for one am glad that the Consumerist is for once reminding people that they have SOME responsibility in what they do; you can’t expect the company to hold your hand like a child.

    Roaming charges have been around since the inception of cell phones; if someone thinks they can go on an out-of-country cruise and not pay roaming charges, they should not own a cell phone.

    That, and you need to understand taht AT&T is not in control of these international networks, and probably couldn’t have stopped this in any way. Roaming fees are not always instantaneously accrued; they often take days, sometimes weeks to get to the original carrier. By the time AT&T had any notification of this, there’s a good chance he already racked up a high bill.

    The phone’s going to latch onto a cell with any network through which AT&T has a roaming agreement. The only way to stop it is for the user to stop it. Sure, a roaming indicator would help – but it wouldn’t have helped this guy, since he seems to be clueless on the whole concept anyways.

  19. soft_guy says:

    Sorry, but I don’t see how this is Apple’s fault at all. The wireless account is with AT&T. Apple doesn’t control AT&T’s pricing.

    There is an easy way to set your phone to not do this. Put it into “Airplane Mode”. In this mode, all of the radios are deactivated and you can still use the unit (as an iPod, etc.) but you do not access the network.

  20. NoWin says:

    Re: @GOODGUY812
    “i would think that apple would credit him something. because if it was me, there would be no way possible to pay that.”

    ….Ah, I see: so when you buy a Corvette and you get a speeding ticket, Chevrolet should pay because you don’t know how to take your foot off the gas-pedal…

  21. B says:

    His three iPhones? Why does he have three iPhones, and why did he take all of them out of the country?

  22. kahri says:

    You people are also forgetting that the iphone doesn’t check for emails periodically unless you set it to. If you mistakenly program your phone to connect every five minutes, you can’t then complain about the charges. If you want to be the coolest guy around with the latest tech gizmos then learn how to use it or get burned. Also this guy claims that his phone was connecting when it was off? That’s going to be a hard case to make.

  23. girly says:

    shouldn’t you have to confirm you want to make a roaming connection, like you do for phone calls?

  24. Buran says:

    @jpp123: Or just save some money and get the ipod that’s like an iphone but without the phone radio.

  25. DCKiwi says:

    I agree that this is the user’s fault. However, it does remind everyone how LUDICROUSLY high roaming charges are (both voice and data). Why is it so much cheaper per minute/KB to rent a local SIM in the country you’re visiting?

    Carriers should charge a small markup for roaming, that’s it. In my experience, roaming charges are around 10 times higher than the rate from a local carrier. (i.e. when I traveled to New Zealand, local rate = 20c/minute, AT&T roaming = $2.29/minute).

  26. goodguy812 says:

    nowin your close to a good point but your example was horrible. i bought a cell phone not a car, and i didn’t break the law by using. not too mention i told the manager it was my fault, but was nice about it and they still removed charges.

  27. Buran says:

    @sncreducer: Doncha know? It’s always the victim’s fault.

    “You must be new here”, as the Slashdot joke goes.

  28. drierp says:

    I will fault Apple for this.. I just went to Toronto for the weekend, and knew of this problem.. So my only choice to completely disable Edge was to call AT&T and have them turn off my access.. (and they turned off text messaging to boot.. )

    The problem is, I want to be able to use the phone and TXT messaging while away. I’m aware of the costs, and can control them directly. The EDGE bit though, is too open ended. 20$ per meg in Canada is insane.

    Apple should have a mode which disables EDGE only (or a screen where EDGE/PHONE/TXT/WIFI can be turned on/off individually).

    Until they have more modes than Airplane/On/Off, this problem is still Apple’s to solve. -Peter

  29. jellycow says:

    Nothing the user claims makes sense.

    Iphone does have a flight mode that he could’ve used. It also defaults to email-checking off. It also has some type of an alert letting you know that you have new mail…on the first screen. I guess he could’ve left it in this bag, but iPhone batteries don’t last that long. So he was definitely charging and using his phone. But he didn’t see that he was receiving email? On All his iphones? Never heard any of the alerts? When it’s obvious that his iphones download a good amount of data? That’s hard to believe, no?

  30. Buran says:

    @drierp: Why not just turn off automatic email/etc. checking? Is that not possible? (don’t have one of these phones yet, though).

  31. kahri says:

    another thing. So you guys think that a company should “warn” you if you’re using their service “too much”? It’s a service! You agreed to the terms when you signed the contract. And NO, it’s not anything like a credit card which is not your money so of course they’re going to contact you about large sums. Because if anything happens THEY pay for it.

  32. DCKiwi says:


    At the risk of starting an Apple fanboy flame war, all Windows Mobile devices allow you to disable network services individually (i.e. phone, EDGE/HSPDA, Wifi, bluetooth, etc.).

    Yet another reason why the iPhone is an oversimplified overhyped overpriced gadget….

  33. RogueSophist says:

    @DCKiwi: Cute.

    1. “Not to start a flame war.”

    2. “FLAME!”

    Keep it outside, friends.

  34. enm4r says:

    @soft_guy: There is an easy way to set your phone to not do this. Put it into “Airplane Mode”. In this mode, all of the radios are deactivated and you can still use the unit (as an iPod, etc.) but you do not access the network.

    Yeah, there is an even easier way to do this, you actually turn the phone off.

  35. goodguy812 says:

    @kahri: well if you had kids, you’d feel differently.

  36. goodguy812 says:

    this guy should keep his cool, admit fault by ignorance, and politely ask if they could let him slide just once. it worked for me at sprint.

  37. ShadowArmor says:

    A guy who can afford to buy THREE iPhones (most likely before the price drop) AND a trip to Europe will probably be able to pony up the dough for this bill.

    That being said though, the blame may not be all his. To those of you saying “just turn it off”, I personally had a similar experience where turning it off was the wrong answer. Back when AIM first appeared on Sprint phones (this was around 2001) a friend of mine tried the feature for about 20 seconds, then turned off her phone. Apparently turning off the phone DID NOT log her out of AIM… a fact she discovered when the bill came.

    Most likely, AT&T will allow this user to retroactively apply better international roaming rates, but I doubt they’ll eliminate the charge altogether.

  38. Amelie says:

    Something’s is terribly wrong with a set-up that can rack up charges when you are not using it, believe you are not using it or haven’t read all the possibilities. The default setting should be that the phone goes off when it’s going to automatically cost you big bucks.
    Example: “Since you are no longer in the U.S., the following services will be turned off. Please check here if you would like them kept on. The roaming charges for these services are as follows, or check this link.

  39. enm4r says:

    @ShadowArmor: So what was your friend charged for? Sounds like a Sprint problem, because if the phone is off there can be no data charges, and AIM obviously doesn’t require a fee.

  40. goodguy812 says:

    and as far as contract reading, i don’t know about others, but when i signed mine, i wasn’t at a desk. i was at the front of a long line and was being rushed. its not like i was at a bank, or filling out one for a credit card in my home. its not like i was at a dest in an quiet office and told to take my time and read it. no i felt rushed. and whenever i get rushed, stuff gets forgot.

  41. goodguy812 says:

    there is obviously more to this story than what we are being told.

  42. AlisonAshleigh says:

    I’m more shocked at the fact that GoodGuy812 only pays $400 for rent. Mine is more than 3x that.

  43. goodguy812 says:

    i live in an economically depressed town where most jobs start at minimum wage. $7 is actually considered decent where i live.

  44. not_seth_brundle says:

    @B: Good question. The underlying article is totally unclear–sounds like maybe 3 people with 3 phones on one plan?

    A HUMAN called Jay Levy says he has been stung by Apple’s iPhone pact with AT&T after he took an Iphone on a Mediterranean cruise.

    They didn’t use their phones, but when they got back they had a 54-page monthly bill of nearly $4,800 from AT&T Wireless.

    The problem was that their three Iphones were racking up a bill for data charges using foreign phone charges.

  45. AlisonAshleigh says:

    @goodguy812: Well thats kind of a downer, huh? Although I think where I live the average is about $7-9/hr and the rents start at about $750 for a studio.

  46. Karl says:

    The manual (page 42) also states that you must enable your AT&T account for international roaming. This seems to imply that you can take your iPhone abroad, and as long as you haven’t contacted AT&T to enable international roaming, it won’t try to use any data services.

    I didn’t see anything in the manual about this, but it’d sure be nice if you could disable data only, while still having voice calls go through. The Sidekick/hiptop lets you do this, for example. That setting saved my butt when I was near the US/Canadian border. Even though I was still in the US, it decided to roam onto a Canadian network.

  47. teh says:

    @coan_net: Your credit card company notifies you if you spend a lot of money in a short period of time because they have a financial incentive to do so. If you card is stolen, you aren’t responsible for any fraudulent charges. Your phone company has no such financial incentive; if your cell phone is stolen, you are responsible for such charges.

  48. Buran says:

    @goodguy812: If they won’t give you time to read what you are signing, insist. If they still don’t, walk out with the papers and come back later.

  49. Starfury says:

    RTFM. Plain and simple.

  50. jacques says:

    @not_seth_brundle: I had heard elsewhere it was his family that took each of their iPhones with them.

    It’s simple. If the phone can receive a phone call, even if the screen is blank, the phone can query for email. Did this guy just turn off the screen of his phone when he got on the airplane and they make the “turn off all electronics” speech?

  51. goodguy812 says:

    well i assumed they aren’t exactly going to negotiate with me anyhow. and i asked everyone a work with (at a high risk finance company) no one read their cell phone contract. we maybe asked a few billing questions, but then again, i wasn’t buying a fancy pants iphone. i bought my phone to make phone calls, and use as a usb modem. which at that time it was still a new technology and was covered in my unlimited net usage. eventually it caught on and they sent warnings to me tell me to stop or they were going to charge me a separate data plan usage(because they started selling pc modem cards and wanted me to buy there plan along with the card.)

  52. kc2idf says:

    Years ago (about 15 years or so, I think), AT&T had an ad campaign known as the “You will” campaign.

    In essence, the narration asked a bunch of stupid-shit questions, usually in groups of three, something like, “Ever by concert tickets (pause for dramatic effect) from an ATM?” After three of these questions, the narration would go, “You will. And the company that will bring it to you is AT&T.”

    Well, my friends and I made a spoof radio ad, based on the same theme. The last item in our list, however, was, “Ever see a $15,000 phone bill? You will! And the company that will bring it to you is AT&T”

    I feel so prescient!

  53. jermjerm says:

    Here’s the deal. The guy and two other members of his family each had an iPhone. They took it with them to make voice calls but didn’t think the Internet would work overseas… Wait what?!! So their phones were not “OFF” because they used them to make calls and they knew that their iPhones calling functionality would work but the internet would not? You buy an expensive piece of equipment and sign a CONTRACT from a company that is in an industry known to screw its customers with international roaming charges, yet you fail to read the manual or the CONTRACT you signed. Apple owes them nothing and AT&T owes them a “Thank You” letter.

  54. tcp100 says:

    @goodguy812: “i bought my phone to make phone calls, and use as a usb modem. which at that time it was still a new technology and was covered in my unlimited net usage.”

    You mean you thought it was covered in your unlimited net usage.

    This is nothing new. Sprint has had provisions against tethering (using a phone as a modem) since they started offering data plans. Only recently have companies like T-Mobile been OK with it; Verizon had a way to skirt around it with an add-on package, and AT&T/Cingular has always been a stickler about it.

    Even CSD (dialing up your ISP) wasn’t OK, despite the fact that customers thought it was “just like a phone call”. Well, it wasn’t; you’re bypassing the vocoder compression and using the circuit at 100% duty cycle. The cell companies didn’t like that.

    Reps would tell people it was OK all the time, even though contracts specifically prohibited it. At least 3 times I saw people in my local Sprint store arguing with a rep about data charges, and this was back in the late 90s.

    (This does not negate the fact that US cell companies seriously over-charge for data.)

    Most cell companies have always sent warnings and imposed restrictions when using plans designed for on-phone usage as a dialup replacement. I know I got several with Sprint back in 1998; their terms explicitly forbid using the phone as a laptop modem, even though you could technically do it, and they wouldn’t raise much of a stink until a certain usage point… What that usage point was, however, was and still is unknown.

  55. indiegeek says:

    I don’t know if AT&T does anything similar, but when I went to China a few months ago T-Mobile sent me a text message as soon as I turned on my blackberry that essentially said “Hey! You’re using one of our partner networks elsewhere in the world! Enjoy your continued service, but be warned that it’s probably going to cost you a metric buttload of cash!”

  56. kahri says:

    @goodguy812: “well if you had kids, you’d feel differently.”
    huh? I do have kids, two of them. I don’t get your point.
    Anyways, please do yourself the favor of reading anything you’re signing. Especially when it’s tied in to a monthly charge. There’s no law saying you have to sign it in front of them. And it shouldn’t take that long either, if you know what to look for. If you don’t read it and you unknowingly agree to something, your later complaints will go as far as this guy’s. BTW I’m emailing you a contract for the brooklyn bridge.

  57. krom says:

    You know, there’s standby off and off off.

    Hmm. But wouldn’t you still want to be able to do the *other* iPhone things, like play music and view your calendar? Seems to me you just want to turn off the wireless transceiver.

    Or maybe you still want to be able to make and receive emergency phone calls, but just don’t want your iPhone to secretly be charging you a fortune.

  58. tcp100 says:

    Do people here realize that international roaming charges aren’t “AT&T screwing the consumer over?” AT&T doesn’t set those rates. International service providers charge AT&T for letting their customers use their network. AT&T can either absorb the cost, or pass it on to the customer. When a plan includes roaming, the home company makes the bet that you’ll spend most of your time in your home area, and won’t incur high roaming charges. Most “unlimited roaming” plans actually have a caveat saying you have to spend 60% or so of your minutes in your home area. (Again, read your contracts.)

    If you want to blame anyone for the fact that roaming costs so much, blame the two-island cell provider with 8 customers in the carribean. They like it when ships full of cell totin’ Americans come through. Where do you think they make most of their money?

  59. exkon says:

    What’s that classic acronym?


  60. bnosach says:

    I don’t think that this is a customer’s fault. So, if I don’t read my toaster’s manual, I will end up having an extra $100 on my unilities bill just because technological innovations made that damned thing consume six times more electricity and I did not bother to open that manual because I thought that all toasters are too easy to operate? Apple should stop those kind of practices.

  61. MeOhMy says:

    @tcp100: Perhaps with AT&T and with small-time providers, but what about T-Mobile charging me a roaming fee while in Berlin connected to a network owned by a little company called….ummm….T-Mobile? I’m sure Deutsche Telekom could figure out a way to waive roaming fees when connecting from one subsidiary to another subsidiary if they really wanted to.

  62. scoopy says:

    Apple and AT&T are both ghetto fabulous.

  63. arachnophilia says:

    well, yes, RTFM.

    BUT having particularly nasty and unexpected policies that are completely overcomplicated while promoting “simplicity” as a selling point isn’t the customer’s fault at all. i mean. maybe we SHOULD expect that all companies are malicious and out to rip us off, but can we really blame the naive for their ignorance?

  64. lestat730 says:

    Many people who buy Apple iPhones are not that tech savvy and even more people never bother reading through the manuals (personally I’ve never bothered reading any of the manuals that have come with the handful of cellphones I’ve owned over the last 10 years.) So it shouldn’t be difficult for Apple/AT&T to realize that this auto checking email feature that continually functions in standbye mode could cause many of their customers to receive massive bills that they didn’t expect. Something like this needs to be made very obvious to the consumer in more ways then just a mention inside a manual. Even if this guy gets stuck having to pay the bill, hopefully the press this gets will make more people aware of the issue.

  65. Anonymously says:

    There is something inherently broken about a $400 device racking up nearly $5000 in usage charges while it’s “off”*. Hell, there’s something wrong with being able to rack up $5,000 in charges during an entire 2-year cell phone contract.

    * (When I put my computer in standby, it doesn’t download email. Why should a phone be any different?)

  66. crimsonwhat says:

    comparing a toaster to an iphone is like comparing apples and oranges.

  67. bossco says:

    3 Iphones on a cruise? Maybe it’s just me, but couldn’t he have bought 1 phone and given $1000 to charity?

  68. dix99 says:

    Well, this is how I see it. You live in Michigan (let’s say this is AT&T), pay you auto taxes & plate fees & it covers the costs of you driving on the roads. Then you make a trip to Ohio (lets say this is BT/British Telecom) & hit a Toll Road, you know, the ones you have to pay extra for. You may complain, because you shouldn’t have to pay again, but AT&T doesn’t own that road, just like the Network in Britain, BT does. This is why they can raise that Toll Fee to what ever they want. You may not like the AT&T Bill you get at the end of the month, but they had no say in these Roaming prices, BT did. So please, let’s quit bashing AT&T & Apple & take you problems up with the foreign company’s who set those prices.

  69. scoopy says:

    @bossco: Couldn’t you just sell your computer and give the proceeds to charity? Your car? Wife?

  70. mcnee says:

    “(When I put my computer in standby, it doesn’t download email. Why should a phone be any different?)”

    Depends on what mode of standby. I believe my friends blackberry has a “standby” mode where the screen turns off to save power, but he still receives emails. My normal phone goes in to a standby that turns off the screens, but I can still receive phone calls.

  71. @coan_net: Why’s that? Apple isn’t the carrier. That’s AT&T.

  72. mandarin says:

    Carlos Mencia? Eww

  73. notallcompaniesarebad says:

    While this guy deserves to lose the right to sign for himself on any future contract, I would hope that AT&T would offer to refund the money up to their cost of using the overseas networks. Clearly the guy didn’t know what he was doing. But just as a kid who calls up the home shopping network with his mom’s credit card can’t be held responsible, this guy should be given a little leeway. It will still cost him money (AT&T’s out of pocket expenses) and he’ll learn his lesson. But there’s no need, I feel, to make him feel like an even bigger moron than he has so ably demonstrated himself to be.