Rogue Downloads And Bill Shock

By Mike Wheeler

Like any parents who decides to invest in a mobile phone for their kid, my wife and I were full of trepidation about taking the plunge; not quite trusting our 11 year-old with this piece of technology because we were worried about Bill Shock whereby he goes way over his allocation of SMS, phone calls and data that is part of his plan.

Do I think a child so young should have a mobile phone? Yes I do. Ten years ago my answer would have been a definitive ‘no’. However, times changed. Both my sons have sport all weekend, they both train four nights a week, so there is the odd occasion where schedules clash and we have to leave our eldest either in the hands of others, or at practice by himself until we can collect him. This is the 21st century, so getting him a mobile phone was not that much of a stretch for us.

However, as expected, within the first month my son’s $29 Optus cap plan had blown out to a whopping $239. Now, a couple of things to mention before I get into the nitty gritty.

First, I have been writing about technology for four years, and I was acutely aware about bill shock. Yet, when my wife hit the roof after seeing the bill, was I surprised? No. More like weary resignation at first, mainly because even for me the minutiae when getting the plan was mind boggling. Then I got angry– angry with my son after explaining bill shock to him; angry with Optus at aspects of the plan I ended up getting (I spent at least an hour with the sales person going over the details, and what she ended up selling me, and what I actually got we a little different – not hugely different, but enough to annoy me); and angry with myself for being such an idiot.

Second: if you ever decide to get your child a mobile phone put them on a prepaid plan NOT a cap plan. Prepaid plans are so much more sensible. If they start going over text, phone or data limits the phone simply doesn’t allow you to use it. That it! Kaput! No more until you buy a recharge card. However, a cap plan will give you a certain amount of calls, texts and data, and if you go over them, then it starts charging you – big time. Phone calls and texting are not really the problem, it’s data that eats up your credit. The main reason we went for a cap plan, was because at the time, Optus didn’t offer a decent handset for prepaid. You had to buy it outright, which we refused to do. So my advice is to buy a cheap handset for your kid and put them on a prepaid plan.

The outcome for us was pretty good. I got hold of Optus, and they were very generous in that they waived the bill and charged us only $29 for the month, but it was on the understanding that if it was to happen again, it was on us. Fair enough, and it was a grateful mum and dad who thanked Optus profusely. That’s the bouquet. Now for the brickbat as we return to our story.

Fast forward four months and we receive another bill. This time for $100. Our son had gone over his limit again. This time he felt the full wraith of dad in rage mode over ‘irresponsible behaviour’, ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’, and the phone was ‘in time out’ until further notice. To his credit, he took it in his stride and was contrite, if not a little confused how it had happened.

Deciding that it would be better to investigate further, I downloaded the bill online. I’ve only ever dealt with my prepaid Vodafone account (so therefore no bill) and was very pleased with the detail Optus go into on the sheet. It didn’t take long to find the culprit. A 241MB download that cost $115. The $29 cap plan – as well as covering SMS and calls – gives us 200MB of data a month before charging. So while, the whole download didn’t cost us, the extra 41MB plus other minor downloads over the month did.

With evidence in hand I again confronted my son about what he had been doing on his phone, but was once again met with bewilderment. He had no idea. Then I did something I should have done in the first place – check his downloads on the phone.

So, I took out his HTC, hit a few buttons and voila, there is was. Laughing at me like some deranged piece of java script was this download. And was it a game? No. An intricate app? No. Had he been surfing nefarious websites? Nada. It turned out it was an Android update. And this is where I got a little angry at Optus. Initially I thought it was a compulsory update, but upon questioning my son he said he remembered downloading it, but he thought he had to. Not only did he not have to, but I was a little surprised that a warning didn’t’ come up. Something along the lines of “if you download this update it will exceed your plan’s data allowance”. How hard is that to do? In a day and age whereby you can write any sort of code within these operating systems, surely a warning bell should be rung? Optus would probably argue that they do have an app that will give you an idea on how much data you have used, and there is even one that will warn you. However, I think it is on them to put safety nets in place under these circumstances, but the cynic in me says it is not in their best interest. After all, they are the beneficiary of any excess data usage. I, like most people, expect bill shock to be over use by the consumer – they’ve downloaded too many apps or games, have streamed too many YouTube vids, or are overdoing web surfing – not downloading an unnecessary update, especially if that update exceeds the monthly data allowance.

Will Optus or any other telco put such measures in place? Doubtful, but what it does do is reinforce my cynicism that telcos and the words ‘customer service’ rarely go hand in hand.

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