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Avoid bill shock on your monthly wireless plan

Carriers will send you alerts so you don't get unexpected charges

Last updated: April 2013

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Illustration: Jason Ford

Getting an unexpectedly high bill for exceeding the voice, text, or data limits of your cell-phone plan is all too possible. Given the prevalence of such "bill shock," reported by one in five cell-phone subscribers in a 2010 Consumer Reports National Research Center survey, Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is pleased that the wireless companies have agreed to voluntarily provide consumers with free alerts before they go over their voice, data, or text plans.

Indeed, our organization has agreed to carry, on this page, ongoing information from the Federal Communications Commission on which carriers have begun to provide the alerts. We also hope the FCC will take swift action if any of the wireless companies fails to comply with the voluntary efforts.

Under the efforts, carriers representing more than 97 percent of the nation's wireless customers have agreed to start sending, by October 2012, a series of free alerts to subscribers who have wireless plans that impose additional charges for exceeding limits on voice, data and text usage, and to those who will incur additional charges when using their wireless devices while traveling abroad.

The alerts, as described below, will allow subscribers to better monitor and manage the use of their devices and avoid unexpected charges. The following table tracks the progress in providing the alerts by the carriers that have subscribed to the code, according to the latest information supplied by CTIA, the industry group to which the carriers belong:

The information in the table, reported to the FCC by the CTIA, will:

  • Be updated, at least monthly, as new compliance information is provided by the CTIA;
  • Indicate each carrier's provision of the particular type of alert;
  • Link to the relevant details available on the carrier's website; and
  • Show the designation "N/A" where a carrier offers an unlimited amount of the particular type of service, making the sending of usage alerts unnecessary.

In agreeing to honor the code, the carriers have committed to provide two alerts to subscribers when they are about to incur overage charges: one when they approach and another when they exceed plan allowances for voice, data, and text. Alerts will also be sent when subscribers are about to incur additional international roaming charges after their devices have registered while traveling abroad. All alerts must be provided without charge and automatically. Subscribers will not need to take any action to receive the alerts.

The carriers were required to provide their subscribers with at least two of the four types of alerts by October 17, 2012, and all of the alerts by April 17, 2013. Update: On October 17, 2012, the FCC announced that wireless carriers have fulfilled their commitment to start providing free alerts to customers both before and after they exceed their usage limits ("Wireless carriers on track to provide overage alerts to customers").

As you see in the table below, many carriersare providing some alerts, as indicated by the "Yes" entries in the chart.

If you have tried to resolve a billing issue with your carrier and cannot reach an acceptable resolution, you may complain to the FCC. You can call the FCC Consumer Center (888-225-5322; 888-835-5322, TTY) or file a complaint online.

Meantime, there are steps you can take to limit bill shock: 

Ask for a break. If you’re hit with an unexpected charge, call your company and ask for an exception or discount. Carriers say they work to resolve overage problems on a case-by-case basis. One Consumer Reports staffer knocked $70 off his phone bill by showing that he never received the alert that Verizon, the nation’s biggest carrier, claims it sends.

Monitor your usage. All smart phones have an account app that lets you check your data usage between billing cycles. You can also look up your usage online at carrier websites by logging in from any computer. And ask your wireless company what other tools they may currently provide to help you track your usage. Try to check your balance at the middle of and three-quarters through each billing cycle, especially in months with unusual usage.

Adjust your plan as needed. If you're bumping up against your limit for voice calls, you may need to switch to a higher-minute plan. To find a contract plan that better fits your needs, analyze your current use and the available deals. The website Truaxis (previously known as BillShrink) searches scores of plans from the four largest carriers for free, and Validas searches six service providers for $5; neither searches prepaid carriers.

Monitor and adjust your messaging and data services, too, if they're metered. Talk to customer service by phone (don’t make a switch online) to assure that a plan change won't create a new overage charge, which can happen if the old and new plans' minutes are prorated when a switch is made.

Consider prepaid. Available from the major carriers and from prepaid specialists such as StraightTalk, pay-as-you-go plans have no overage charges. Instead, you buy more minutes at the regular rate when your account balance runs low or runs out. Or consider a monthly plan with unlimited minutes from a prepaid carrier, which can cost less than such plans from ontract carriers. 

Carrier

Voice

Data

SMS/Text

International Roaming

AT&T

Yes

Yes

N/A

Yes

Cellcom

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Cellular One of NE Arizona

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Clearwire

N/A

Yes

N/A

N/A

Plateau Yes Yes Yes
N/A

SouthernLINC Wireless

Yes

Yes

Yes

N/A

Sprint

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

T-Mobile USA

Yes

Yes

N/A

Yes

US Cellular

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Verizon Wireless

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

N/A = Carrier does not offer the service or offers it only on an unlimited basis on all domestic plans offered as of or after October 17, 2011, making the sending of usage alerts unnecessary.

   

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