Airman Racks Up $16,000 In Roaming Charges In 6 Days

Usually when we write about someone racking up insanely high phone charges, it involves a trip outside the U.S. borders, but here’s a post about a member of the U.S. Air Force who found himself facing more than $16,000 in roaming charges after short visit to his family in Sacramento.

See, since the airman has been stationed in Guam, he has a smartphone plan through a telecom company based on the island. And even though Guam is a U.S. territory, that wireless plan really isn’t meant to be used by people back in the continental U.S.

But the 19-year-old airman wasn’t fully aware of this when he visited his family and friends in California. So during the course of only six days, he used up around 1.6GB of roaming data — at a cost of $.01/kilobyte.

“He said that they did go on a couple YouTubes, a couple other sites,” the airman’s father tells CBS Sacramento’s Kurtis Ming.

The wireless carrier came to a compromise with the airman and dropped the bill from $16.098 to $4,829.

So if you’re heading outside of your area of coverage, be sure to completely turn off your phone, as some apps and services will use up data even when you’re not actively using the device.

The major U.S. wireless carriers have all agreed to implement alert systems to notify customers when they are reaching the limits on their data, voice or messaging plans; international roaming is also included.

The FCC recently launched a page that allows consumers to see how the various providers are making progress toward this goal.

Call Kurtis: Airman Gets Shock With $16,098 Phone Bill [CBS Sacramento]


Edit Your Comment

  1. jaydez860 says:

    1.6 GB in 6 days?!?!?! I use my iphone all the time on 3G and it takes me almost a month to get to 1.5 GB.

    He must have had pandora on all day and all night for 6 days to use it that quickly.

    • nishioka says:

      Same here… as a matter of fact I’m looking at my usage right now, I’m at 1.6GB with 2 days left in the billing cycle.

      That said, I don’t use Pandora, and I only watch a couple Youtube videos a month over the network…

    • Eric Jay says:

      I agree. I have a smart phone, use it daily for email (3 accounts, each regularly polling for messages), web browsing (at least 20-30 minutes per day, including watching videos on Youtube), Pandora (about 5-6 hours per week), navigation, etc. I also use Netflix and watch a few TV episodes per week. I’m 23 days into my 31 day billing period, and I’m just just shy of 1.75 GB.

      Racking up that much data use in one week is not casual usage by any stretch.

    • rugman11 says:

      Geez, yeah. The closest I’ve ever gotten to my 2 GB cap is when I got a 75% alert two days before the end of the cycle. This was more than “a couple YouTubes [sic].” This was a lot of Netflix or Hulu+.

      • who? says:

        I run consistently about 2GB a month, but I’m on an unlimited plan, and I run through data like a drunken sailor. I have no idea how he could have used that much data in 6 days. He must have spent the entire time watching movies.

    • matlock expressway says:

      To put this into perspective: if he used his phone 4 hours per day for 6 days — and 4 hours is nothing for someone with a lot of free time, such as an airman on leave — he’d only have to use 66 MB per hour to end up with 1.6 gigabytes transferred.

      66 MB per hour is nothing.

      Some individual emails I receive are 66 MB, and you’ll use that up on a YouTube HD clip in a few minutes.

      Hell, if you happened to be able to consistently max out a 4G connection, you’d use up 1.6GB in 21.3 minutes.

      So… just because you don’t use 1.6GB yourself doesn’t mean that it’s not almost incredibly easy for someone with different usage habits to unintentionally do.

  2. Blueskylaw says:

    Can someone please explain to me how it’s possible (other than they can) to charge this much money for using a phone? I mean, this is the price of a very nice used car for transmitting 1.6G of data?

    • Costner says:

      I don’t think anyone can justify the cost they bill for roaming or overages, but the simple reality is they have the right to charge whatever they want. Nobody has the right to use their network for free, so currently the onus is upon the person using the phone to understand if they are on their own network and how many minutes or how much data they consume.

      I does sting a little to know that 1.6GB of data probably costs the provider something like 65 cents yet they feel good about billing someone $16,000.

      • Herbz says:

        There should be a law outlawing any charges any more than 20x above cost for telecoms, especially in the US.

        • Bsamm09 says:

          What method do you suggest to determine cost?

          • hugothebear says:

            They pay, lets say, around $15/hr for people to man a call center that’s made available to you. Let’s say from 600 – 2200, that’s 16 hours. 20%…. That’s $48 a day. But you insist on only talking to a supervisor, so they need someone else that make’s $0.50 more per hour. That’s $49.60 more. So, besides infrastructure, you can pay a maximum of $97.60 per day.

            • NeverLetMeDown says:

              “So, besides infrastructure, you can pay a maximum of $97.60 per day.”

              Besides infrastructure? That’s kind of like saying “here’s the most United can charge for a ticket, except for planes and the fuel.”

              • hugothebear says:

                I’m sorry, I misread. This was in reply to “Should not charge more than 20x”, not 20%. In that case, $9760 per day max, plus infrastructure. As for you sir, this is one part of the equation and has nothing to do with airplanes.

          • homehome says:

            Regulation is not the answer, responsibility is. Too many ppl pass the buck on not knowing the terms of their own contacts. Most of this happens because ppl are ignorant to their terms which is always available for them to read before and after they agree to the contract.

            a couple youtubes and couples sites? Yea right, he did more than that. I have would have more pity for people if they stopped lying trying to enhance their story.

            • Blueskylaw says:

              You can’t know everything about everything and some people don’t know these things. A reasonable person wouldn’t expect a $16,098 phone bill for 6 days of use no matter where they used the phone, it’s just insane.

              • homehome says:

                No, but you can read a contract before you enter into one. A reasonable person may not, but a responsible person would’ve recognized the rate the contract and known if I move out my area, data charges are very expensive

                • Blueskylaw says:

                  And i’m sure you’ve completely read every single contract that came your way, especially cell phone, insurance, every prospectus for every stock you ever bought, every end user license agreement for any software you ever installed… etc.

        • O2C says:

          The slight problem here is that it’s very possible that it wasn’t anywhere near 20x the cost for the Guam telecom. IIRC, most roaming agreements work by having the network providing the service charging the billing provider and then the bill being passed on. My guess is that Sprint or Verizon charges IT&E around ~$5K to provide that much data. Then IT&E has a markup of around 3x their cost and passes on to the customer.

          So where do you draw the line? Do you cap the amount cell phone companies can make selling to other cell phone companies that end up reselling to customers? Do you also cap the amount phone manufacturers can make selling to cell phone companies that end up selling to customers? What about rentals for cell tower placement? Electricity? Gas? Water? Wages?

    • Captain Spock says:

      they did go on a couple YouTubes after all

    • rugman11 says:

      This isn’t a compensatory fee, it’s a punitive fee. Cell phone companies have a limited amount of bandwidth and, ideally, they will have only as much bandwidth as they need to cover the needs of their users. But, because people from outside of their network use their service as well (roaming) they have to maintain an extra buffer of bandwidth for which they are not being compensated by their users. In order to prevent people from doing this (and lessen the amount of bandwidth padding they need), they charge exorbitant fees to roamers. It’s not about compensating the companies for the bandwidth usage, it’s about making it very painful for roamers so that they never do it again. It’s the same reason you can be fined $10,000 for stealing a $.99 cupcake. It’s not about compensating the owner for his loss, but about making sure nobody else will do the same thing.

    • bben says:

      Because they can.
      The entire purpose of the roaming charge is to rip off the customer who just doesn’t know any better.

  3. Important Business Man (Formerly Will Print T-shirts For Food) says:

    When I travel, I always buy a “burner phone” for the local area. When I go to Jamaica, I buy a Digicel sim card, Metro PCS in the states, etc. I’d say it’d cost less than $100 for a month of buying and using a burner phone. $100

    • Costner says:

      I took a four day cruise once… and rather than pay the hefty fee to connect to their on-board cell service you know what I did? Shut off the phone for four days. Family had the Cruise Lines emergency number if they needed it, so why did I need my phone? Updating Facebook to say I’m in the middle of the Atlantic really didn’t seem all that necessasary, and I had zero desire to watch iJustine’s latest Apple Store dance via YouTube when I was enjoying sunshine and a pool.

      I can understand if you were somewhere for a month you need a way to communicate, but often times when people go out of town for a few days they feel they MUST have their phones at all times. Where does this mentality come from? Disconnect from the grid for a few days and you will be amazed how liberating it can be. When I got back into port and turned my phone on sure I had a few messages and a few texts… but nobody died, my life didn’t end because I didn’t have 3G coverage, and the polar ice caps weren’t even impacted. Amazing.

      • madsquabbles says:

        once upon a time beepers and cell phones were for “important” people. i guess telling the world you just took a double dump is just as important as calling a doctor in for emergency surgery.

        • Important Business Man (Formerly Will Print T-shirts For Food) says:

          well, i AM an important business man, you know… Before this job I could care less about having a cell phone and data plan. Unfortunately now my boss needs to be able to contact me at all times. Its worth the money.

      • hugothebear says:

        why enjoy a cruise that you spent money on when you could just do the same menial crap that you can do at home and work?

      • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDave‚Ñ¢ says:

        “…and I had zero desire to watch iJustine’s latest Apple Store dance…”

        People like you disgust me.

    • Bunnies Attack! says:

      I thought about this… but any idea if you can do the same thing with just one GSM phone and buying sim cards? I think in the US they lock pay-as-you-go plans to their own phones but I think the rest of the world you can just bring a single gsm phone and buy a sim card at the point of arrival.

    • Bunnies Attack! says:

      I thought about this… but any idea if you can do the same thing with just one GSM phone and buying sim cards? I think in the US they lock pay-as-you-go plans to their own phones but I think the rest of the world you can just bring a single gsm phone and buy a sim card at the point of arrival.

      • MrEvil says:

        Prepaid plans aren’t locked to handsets on GSM providers in the US. I had a buddy who used to purchase Unlocked GSM handsets and used an AT&T GoPhone SIM without any issue.

        • vastrightwing says:

          This is why all my phones are GSM. I never use my USA SIM card overseas. That would bankrupt me fast! Instead, I buy a pay as you go card in the country I’m in. Usually $30 is enough for my needs. I have an Unlocked Galaxy S, it works fine everywhere.

          • CrackedLCD says:

            Even though I don’t travel overseas, I do keep an older GSM quad band handset around just in case. I bought it unlocked off the net years ago and more than made up the extra cost over the years by switching providers as needed‚Ķ Used it on T-Mobile, AT&T and Unicel at one time or another. T-Mobile is the only one who does (or did) offer cheaper plans if you brought your own phone, though. The downside with modern handsets is no 3G/4G if the frequencies don’t match up.

      • Such an Interesting Monster says:

        It depends on the locale. In some places you can’t just buy a SIM card and go. I ran into this problem in Argentina a few years ago.

  4. Herbz says:

    There is NO way it cost them 16,000. Maybe more like $35. Especially since he was roaming IN THE US.

  5. Press1forDialTone says:

    Is this not proof enough that the entire cell phone system is broken and
    needs serious regulatory restraint put on it? If the cell phone billing system
    were made fair, users would get a good product for a fair price, no surprise
    charges and the carriers would make a reasonable sustainable profit for
    their investors, you remember like the good ole days. The only way this will
    happen is if the companies are forced by the government to conduct themselves
    using fair business practices. You know, really, it’s only our ENTIRE COMMUNICATIONS
    INFRASTRUCTURE they’re screwing around with you know. We should have never
    broken up the Bell system but dragged them along the technology trail kicking and
    screaming via regulation.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:

      The US telecom industry (as a whole) is notably LESS profitable now than it was under the Bell system.

    • hugothebear says:

      except his telecom wasn’t a babybell. his coverage specified guam and probably on Northern Mariana Islands of Rota, Saipan and Tinian. He was well outside of his service area. Youth and ignorance is no excuse, he signed the contract as an adult. You can’t pick and choose what part of adult you want to be.

  6. skapig says:

    Ridiculous, but totally expected and easily avoidable.

  7. Nobby says:

    Why, when I was in the Chair Force, we didn’t have no stinkin cell phones. We wrote letters and everything was just fine. That’s what’s wrong with today’s generation.

    • hugothebear says:

      how else do you expect someone to watch a couple of youtubes while visiting their parents at home?

  8. JGKojak says:

    All phones/carriers should be required to come with a cut off at what the consumer sets it at– so I can cut myself off at $250 or $500 when travleling – and hopefully have ample warning. I wouldn’t pay it and I’d let them come after me in court.

  9. chiieddy says:

    If you have an Android phone, please remember to turn off your data roaming.

    Settings – Wireless & Networks – International Data Roaming

    If your phone company doesn’t allow for it, you can turn off National Data Roaming too, but it’s the International Data Roaming that gets people in trouble.

    Be aware, even with it off, I somehow got charged for a micro-burst of data when I turned my phone on in Italy. T-mobile quickly removed the charge.

  10. Judah says:

    Sounds like they screwed this guy because he was a young soldier. He lost like 3 months pays after taxes.

    • George4478 says:

      The cell tower knew he was in the military and allowed his roaming usage to happen? The cell company would not have charged the same amount for non-military people from Guam?

  11. dourdan says:

    as someone who was stationed in germany- had a “on base” phone and a “USA phone” (that i kept in my suitcase- it was a pay as you go phone, that my parents watched over.)

    i never thought that one phone could be used for both.and since Guam is on the other side of the world i would automaticlly consider it “international”

  12. CalicoGal says:

    “So if you’re heading outside of your area of coverage, be sure to completely turn off your phone, as some apps and services will use up data even when you’re not actively using the device…”

    WRONG. You don’t need to “completely turn off your phone.” You need to TURN OFF DATA.

  13. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    All servicemen should be able to ignore and get out of any contacts.

    • Caveat says:

      That is exactly the problem. Servicemen are led to believe that they have immunity to everything civil within the USA and everything (civil and criminal) anywhere else. In most cases they get away with it. I have traveled across many international borders and even without data plans I always get text messages that I am subject to roaming charges very soon after I cross the border. At that time I either shut down my phone or insert a local SIM card. You can buy SIM cards for many countries on eBay, but why bother if you think you are not going to be held responsible? If the guy does not know what that means he should not be using the cell phone, period.

    • hugothebear says:

      they can get out of any US-carrier contract, provided they get shipped out of service area. They’re still liable for all debts incurred, or risk losing their clearance.

    • bhr says:

      And watch all companies refuse to provide service to them. Or rent to them.

  14. Draw2much says:

    My husband is a active duty technical instructor for the Air Force. I hear ALL kinds of stories from him. So when I say this, I’m not being anti-American, I’m just passing on what I know…

    Airmen are dumb about life. They’re given grown up responsibilities while still having the mentality of a teenager. They just don’t think things through.

    I’m glad the cell phone company lowered the bill. He wouldn’t have been able to pay a 16K bill up front, an installment plan would have been needed and it would have taken him years to pay it off. He’ll probably STILL need an installment plan, but at least the cellphone company will get their money back faster.

    I’m not really sympathetic towards this kid. He suffered because he was thoughtless, not because the company he was dealing with was “evil”. I’m sure this experience will make him think more carefully about cell phones and traveling in the future.

    • who? says:

      This. The kid’s 19, probably less than a year out of high school. The military leadership does what they can to teach these kids how to not completely screw up their lives before they’re 25, but stuff happens anyway.

      • eccsame says:

        By that logic all 19 year olds should be able to get out of cell phone contracts. Being in the military doesn’t make him special.

    • CPT Goodlaw says:

      And yet, how and why is a service that costs $30 for 2GB a month somehow transform to cost $1600 for 1.6GB when “roaming?” This is what should make people angry. These plans are designed to be punitive for people not willing to lock themselves into a contract.

      An ad hominem attack on the Airman, you calling him “dumb,” is uncalled for, as would any such attack on any other human being. These comments only fuel disrespect for those willing to do the tough work of those in the military. You’re not being anti-american, just mean. Focus on the companies that design policies with draconian measures such as these.

      • Draw2much says:

        Sorry CPT Goodlaw, I stand by what I said. Airmen (the rank of A1C, *not* everyone in the USAF) are dumb. It’s a combination of their age (17-20) and freedom (full time job, no parents). The military does it best to keep these kids from screwing themselves over, but there’s only so much an organization can do. If a person is determined to be dumb, then they’ll find a way!

        Do I think that anyone deserves to pay 16K in roaming? NO. I said, specifically, that I was glad this kid didn’t have to. The system is screwy and unfair. Do I think he was being irresponsible? YES. Do I think he should get out of paying his bill because he’s in the military? NO. He ought to pay. He ought to suffer the consequences for his thoughtlessness. (Better to learn it now rather than later when he’s dealing with something more dangerous than a cellphone.)

    • bben says:

      Yes, the kid is young and dumb weren’t we all at one time.
      That should not give a cell phone company the right to rip him off. There is no possible way that their cost for that service came anywhere near what they are demanding from him.

    • MomToARedhead says:

      My husband is a tech school instructor too in the USAF – wonder if we’re at the same base?? Anyway, he tells me the same stories. It’s hard for me to remember I was probably the same way at that age, but man, some of the stuff he tells me about just all the drama in their lives. He loves his job, but sometimes I feel like he’s babysitting children.

      • pgr says:

        If they had any brains in the first place they wouldn’t have to join the military!

        • Draw2much says:

          Tch, pgr! Some kids choose college, some kids choose military service. The level of intelligence and common sense is about equal between both groups. Which is to say: neither of much… ;)

      • Draw2much says:

        If your base happens to be in Texas, near the boarder of OK, then we probably ARE at the same base. ;D

  15. CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

    I would mail them a penny for 1.6GB with a note to use the fraction of a penny left over as credit toward the next 100GB.

  16. jimbo831 says:

    I just want to find out one thing: where are these other YouTubes he is using besides the one I am already familiar with. I bet they have thousands of never before seen cat videos!

    On a serious note, I can’t feel bad for the guy. He failed to find out ahead of time if roaming was included and/or what it cost. Should have known better.

  17. ecuador says:

    Roaming charges like that are ridiculous, but a couple of youtube videos and a couple of websites are less than 20MB total. He used up 80 times that.

  18. TravelWithDignity says:

    the real problem (for consumers) is that it costs NOTHING extra for the carriers. They just moved bits around on a different network trunk, but they get to bill 1000x what it would be had that same traffic occurred at a different cell tower in a different time zone.

    • homehome says:

      First of all that’s a lie and you even believing it costs carrier nothing extra just show how gullible you are.

  19. Preppy6917 says:

    Why is the op’s military status in the headline? Of what relevance is that? If I ever have a problem for Consumerist, will the headline read “Internal Auditor got Ripped Off by XYZ Co.”