Who Is Making Hourlong Roaming Calls On My Phone Every Time I Travel To China?

Heather travels to China regularly for work, and she has to bring her phone with her. It’s a Blackberry on AT&T. What she doesn’t understand is why lengthy roaming calls made from China appear on her AT&T bill when she’s out of the country. She never makes 90-minute cell phone calls, so she certainly wouldn’t do so while paying international roaming rates. Still, AT&T insists that she is the one who made the calls, and is responsible for the roaming fees. “[AT&T] can’t tell me who these calls were actually placed to,” she writes, “but [they] assure me that they know I made them.” Well, I’m convinced.

She writes:

I travel to China for work every few months. Every time I do, I run into major issues with AT&T. Mysterious 20-90 minute calls appear on my bill that are not my calls (I don’t make cellular calls of that length under normal circumstances, and especially not when roaming internationally at $2 a minute). One bill was almost $800! When I try to work with customer service, their attitude is that I’m trying to rip them off. They can’t tell me who these calls were actually placed to, but assure me that they know I made them.

I have found that their social media department is marginally more customer friendly than the phone agents, who are downright nasty. A social media agent agreed to forgive a $200 call that even they had to recognize was not mine (given that I was tied up in a meeting at the time I supposedly made it) – but AT&T has not worked with me on anything else. And today I get another bill with $107 in calls I am sure I did not make.

I need a CEO-level address to escalate my complaint. Can you help? I have to take my BlackBerry to China for work reasons, but each time I do, I get reamed. I’m responsible for these charges myself, as my company will only pay up to a certain amount. This is ridiculous.

Does the phone ever leave Heather’s sight while she’s traveling? If not, she should try swapping in a Chinese prepaid SIM and seeing whether any calls are made from her line when it’s not even operational. (Taking the battery out would work, too.) If the calls continued even when Heather was back home in the USA, that would indicate that someone has cloned her phone. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, though.

As far as we know, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s contact information hasn’t changed since we first published it in 2007. Surely someone high up in the organization does a lot of international traveling and has been through something similar.


Edit Your Comment

  1. Blueskylaw says:

    China spent so much money building the Three Gorges Dam that they ran out of money to pay their cell phone bills and now have to resort to hacking into foreigner’s phones in order to make calls.

    • ferozadh says:

      Who is “They”? lol…. the mythical “Communism” beast?

    • Ekopy says:

      This is incorrect. Hacking a GSM signal to steal a number and have it be on your account is not possible. I suspect Heather may not be providing the full truth or has a misconception of the way her phone works.

      • Blueskylaw says:

        Did you forget to pay your sarcasm meter bill this month?

      • wombats lives in [redacted] says:

        They just did it at defcon this year.

      • SeattleSeven says:

        It is possible… However, it isn’t plausible (an important difference).

        Plus the use case doesn’t make any sense. Once I’ve cloned your IMSI, I don’t need you to be in the country to use it, plus I wouldn’t know when you were leaving or coming back. Unless I worked for the phone company, and those who work for the phone company don’t need any help in the free phone call department.

        • jamar0303 says:

          Unless the person who works in the phone company and the person doing the free calls are merely connected, and not the same person.

      • jamar0303 says:

        And yet I get advertisements for that kind of thing all the time here (in China). Apparently spying on others is a thing here, and if someone is sufficiently interested in you, your communications are not safe.

        • jamar0303 says:

          (where’s the edit button?)

          And also, cloning other accounts is also possible here. Even without the original SIM. The weak link is in the local provider’s network. Again, putting money in the right places can make things happen that don’t happen elsewhere.

  2. katstermonster says:

    This is going to sound outrageous, but given that she’s traveling to China, it would not be out of the question that her phone is getting hacked. The bottom line is this: don’t take your phone to China. Ever. If you absolutely have to, pull the battery as you get on the plane and put it back in when you’re safely on US soil. It sounds paranoid, I know, but read this before you judge: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/technology/electronic-security-a-worry-in-an-age-of-digital-espionage.html

    • jamar0303 says:

      On the other hand, there are lots of things that you can’t get done here without a cellphone (my bank sends me an authentication code for online purchases, wire transfers, and such, it acts as my membership card for at least two airlines I use, utility bill payments, etc, and last but not least, phone calls). Everybody has one, and you are at a severe disadvantage without one mainly because in a business setting you’re expected to be reachable at any time in case of sudden changes in plans.

      • Bob A Dobalina says:

        They send that information over a wireless network?

        i hope you find a new job after they are bankrupted

  3. Mr Grey says:

    if you need a cell phone in china – buy a prepaid there – and have you calls forwarded from your US phone.

  4. Lukecadet says:

    This is China. So who is to say that a Chinese carrier wouldn’t say hey… We can charge these Americans and make money and there is no way for them to stop us. So they see a phone pop up on their network and add a few calls.

    I especially like the part about how AT&T can’t tell her what number she is calling. This is a system setup for fraud.

    • AtlantaCPA says:

      I see that as a likely explanation. Can they tell the device is from the US when it pops up on their network?

      • Ekopy says:

        AT&T can see the number but their policy is to not give out numbers over the phone for “privacy” concerns. They just direct you online to look.

        • jamar0303 says:

          China Mobile, on the other hand, will freely give out numbers to telemarketers.

        • NorthAlabama says:

          there are no privacy concerns here…if i’m billed for a call, i am entitled to know what number i called, period. there’s no way they can get out of telling the op what the number is. something is fishy here.

          this is another reason why companies like using toll free customer service numbers…since they pay for the call, you are unable to block your number. even if you have a private or blocked number, the bill will list your number, because they pay for the charges.

      • jamar0303 says:

        They can tell that it’s from the US, mainly because it’ll identify as such to the local network (for proper routing of calls- and billing). That’s a weak link right there.

  5. Crackpot says:

    So, Heather has the right idea: escalate. But she’s escalating with the wrong organization. Dealing with corporate policies can often be a nightmare, especially in situations like this. Sometimes you simply need to put your foot down.

    Heather needs to contact whomever within her organization is responsible for cell phones, from two sides: finance and administration. She needs to contact those who handle expense/reimbursement, and those who handle blackberry issuance, and CC her manager. She needs to state very clearly that each time she travels, she is receiving bills for calls she’s never made, and that if she remains on the hook for those calls, she will no longer be bringing her Blackberry because she cannot afford to pay for company expenses that she does not personally incur.

    This will give her organization a kick in the ass to either a] solve the problem or b] stop making her responsible for it.

    Of course, whether or not this will work out well for her, politically, depends on her organization. In my organization (150K employees worldwide), that’s often what is needed to unblock issues such as this. But in some organizations, this can come back to bite you. YMMV.

    • scoosdad says:

      Excellent advice. My cell is also provided by my employer, and it would be a cold day in hell when I’d be on the phone for hours with the cell provider myself trying to solve issues like this.

    • Not Given says:

      Notify finance, administration, IT, security or IT security. It’s probably a smaller company, though, without many of those departments. The big boys already take precautions with IT security.

  6. mikesanerd says:

    My first thought is pocket-dials. Has she checked the call history on her phone to see if it has a record of her making the calls at the alleged times from the bill? Maybe she’s making them without knowing it.

  7. Not Given says:

    Industrial espionage.
    She should leave her phone at home and use a prepaid while she is there. Likely her company’s network has already been compromised by allowing her to use the same phone, pad, laptop, etc. on their network and in China. Somebody probably activated her phone while she was in the meeting in order to listen in.

    • PBallRaven says:

      I’d say this is highly likely. While I wouldn’t advise travelling to china under any circumstances, you should definitely not take any laptops or phones with you that you plan on using for work or banking applications anywhere (including after you return to your home country).

      • Not Given says:

        Some companies send dedicated devices with nothing on them and wipe them on return. I think it’s McAfee that will not allow any device that has been inspected by Chinese customs to access their network, EVER again.

      • jamar0303 says:

        OK, *that* is going a bit overboard. I’ve been using my (Canada-purchased) laptop in the US, Canada, and China for banking in all three countries for the past few years and have yet to have anything disappear from any of my accounts.

        (random tidbit- the Chinese banks are the most paranoid; most of them require USB tokens to perform transactions online, and these are typically not compatible with anything but Windows+IE)

  8. Richy C. says:

    Write to them (or email) stating that you didn’t make the calls and those calls are “in dispute”. State that you do not contest the rest of the bill, and just pay that section, but will not pay for those Chinese calls until they supply the time and date of the call and the number called. Let them know that until they supply that information, you will work on the premise that those calls were not actually made as they have been unable to provide proof the calls existed.

    Of course, if they do supply the details, then you are stuck with trying to prove that you personally did not make the calls from your phone: you could then ask them to supply the IMEI number of the phone that made the calls (if it doesn’t match with your phone, then you are in the clear) and/or the cell tower location the calls were made from (then if you can show with evidence, such as credit card statements, you weren’t in the area, you should be “clear”). However, I’m not sure “roaming” agreements have access to the latter – or they may make a charge for the information which you can “charge back” once you’ve proved it wasn’t you.

    • jamar0303 says:

      “IMEI number”

      Easily copied. Most of China’s knock-off phones have IMEIs copied from legitimate devices (or in some cases where Japanese cellphones are gutted and replaced with internal parts that are compatible with China’s network).

      “cell tower location”

      Harder to fake, but I’m not sure that’s out of the realm of possibility here.

  9. StatusfriedCrustomer says:

    // A social media agent agreed to forgive a $200 call that even they had to recognize was not mine (given that I was tied up in a meeting at the time I supposedly made it) //

    If they’re willing to buy this excuse, there must be something the OP can tell them to make them believe the other calls weren’t hers!

    • Blueskylaw says:

      They used the word forgive to make it sound like they did Heather a favor and that she shoudn’t dispute the rest of her bill because AT&T is a nice company that grants “favors” to its customers.

    • Red Cat Linux says:

      Not necessarily so. I think that “forgive” feature works on many different account types and is generally intended to make the customer shut up and feel blessed that they got something.

      It’s not an admission of wrongdoing on the company’s part, simply a bone thrown to the snarling customer that translates to: “GTFO of my helpdesk queue so I can close this ticket.”

  10. wombats lives in [redacted] says:

    Others have linked to a good article, but in short she should probably get a travel phone, and turn it off if she’s not using it. Leave her main phone at home. Also getting a local sim would keep the issue from continuing to cost as much as it does..

  11. GitEmSteveDaveHatesChange says:

    It was me. Sorry. Thought you rouldn’t notice.

  12. howie_in_az says:

    I call shenanigans on this. If AT&T can bill someone for making a phone call, why can’t AT&T provide the number that was called? Furthermore, why can’t the OP go into their bill and see the numbers being called — can’t she request this on her bill?

    If AT&T cannot provide the number being called, how can they demand payment? What’s stopping AT&T from fabricating a bunch of phone calls then refusing to provide the numbers being called but insisting on payment?

  13. SeattleSeven says:

    These are data roaming charges but they are formatted incorrectly and look like voice calls. This probably explains why they are having a hard time seeing the terminating number(s).

    Email, web traffic, PIN-to-PIN messages are NOT FREE when your are out of the country.

  14. Invader Zim says:

    I would avoid using my phone there. If I had to bring it I would remove the sim and battery.

    • jamar0303 says:

      Or just get a local one. Cheap prepaid phones are a dime a dozen here. Look in the right places and you can find a local phone and SIM for $15 all-in (including about $7-8 in call credit).

  15. dush says:

    Verizon lets you see usage details that show every number dialed from your number.
    Good to know AT&T doesn’t provide that to customers.

  16. NotEd says:

    Forget it, Heather. It’s China.

  17. icerabbit says:

    Maybe they’re bogus charges from a local cellphone operator.

    Take the battery out next time, and only use the phone when you need it to retrieve voice mail and make the necessary calls at certain times of the day? Or have some type of US based call forwarding and not using the phone unless you’re on American soil?

    No excuse for AT&T not having billing details from where, to whom, at what time etc.

  18. Bob A Dobalina says:

    The first iPhones had a similar problem when they first appeared. I remember a story about a pilot who left his at home while he flew overseas and came home to several $100 in usage charges.

    It turns out that his phone was trying to update email every 15 minutes or so and was eating up airtime. It’s a good thing the battery eventually died

    I am thinking this is something similar. Her phone is probably configured to access some kind of data and update it once in a while. If it is a crackberry, it’s probably email.

    When it tries to connect, it cannot access the server, maybe because the Chinese have most of the internet blocked. All of the time it is trying to connect is being billed to her as airtime. This explains how AT&T knows it is her call but cannot tell her what number she called.

    Either that or the Chinese have cloned/hacked her phone via the authentication info it broadcasts to the network.

  19. kaleberg says:

    Is it a Bluetooth phone? Was Bluetooth on or off?

  20. yoshisma says:

    Since it’s a blackberry you are probably butt dialing without knowing it.