U.S. carriers set up warnings to prevent 'bill shock'

Mobile operators in the U.S. will warn subscribers when they’re heading toward a big bill, after most carriers agreed to send email or text alerts when users are about to exceed their monthly usage limits or start using international roaming.

Carriers serving 97 percent of U.S. mobile users instituted the alerts before a Wednesday deadline, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday. Service providers agreed to provide the alerts in 2011 after a change in the voluntary Consumer Code for Wireless Service, sponsored by the CTIA mobile trade group. Other carriers may also warn their customers but are not participating in the program.

So-called “bill shock” has made headlines over the past several years as ordinary consumers have received bills for thousands of dollars for high voice, text or data use, especially while using international roaming. A recent FCC survey showed that 30 million people in the U.S., or one out of six mobile users, had experienced bill shock, according to the agency.

The new rules don’t change what carriers charge in those situations but are designed to make sure the customer knows what’s happening.

All the major U.S. mobile operators have agreed to send the alerts, which are free and may be sent in email or text messages. They will warn customers when they are about to reach the limits of their regular plans and when they have exceeded them, plus warn them when they are subject to international roaming rates, which typically are much higher than domestic rates.

A page on the FCC’s website lists participating operators and provides links to their explanatory pages. Each major carrier is implementing the alerts in a slightly different way, and their policies vary depending on the type of plan.

For example, Verizon Wireless subscribers with usage-based data pricing or a Share Anything plan will receive warnings when they have used up 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent and 100 percent of their data allocations. If they buy more data with an overage allowance, they will get a warning when they have used up 90 percent of the allowance. In another example, Sprint Nextel requires subscribers without an international roaming plan to opt in when their international charges exceed approximately $100 and $300, and will suspend service when international data use charges exceed $500. Users can then restore their service by contacting Sprint.

Authorities in other parts of the world have also tried to tackle bill shock. In February, agencies in Australia and New Zealand disclosed the findings of a study on roaming rates between the two countries. Last year, the European Parliament agreed to cap roaming rates for European mobile subscribers traveling within the region.

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