Family disputes Verizon's $18,000 bill

A Massachusetts family is still fighting over the huge bill, allegedly caused by their son connecting to the Web on his phone four years ago.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Updated 10:56 a.m. PST Sunday with further comment from Verizon.

It's hard not to feel the pain of both Bob St. Germain and Verizon in a dispute that has been going on since the Bush administration.

It seems that four years ago, St. Germain's then 22-year-old son, Bryan, picked up his Verizon cell phone, marveled at its ingenuity, and connected to the Web. This is understandable behavior. The Boston Globe does not record how long Bryan surfed the Web on the phone, but it does record the bill of more than $12,000 that Dad received. And the additional bill of almost $6,000 that made his life slightly less amusing.

It seems that Bryan St. Germain had gotten into the habit of tethering his cell phone to his laptop because the connection was a little more speedy than his parents' dial-up. Sadly, on receiving the first bill, Bob St. Germain called Verizon and discovered that the two-year promotional period, which neatly allowed free downloads, had expired. He was now being charged per kilobyte. And Bryan St. Germain had bitten off some 816,000 of those. Oh, and another 375,000, which were to be added to the next bill.

Dad appears to have been in a state in which he wanted to offer some words that might have included the phrase: "Can you hear me NOW!"

He wondered why cell phone companies don't first alert customers to unusual transaction. He told the Globe: "If there's extreme activity on your account, they should let you know. Nobody should get surprised like I did."

Surprise is, to my mind, the very heart of human life. But it's the kind of surprise that St. Germain senior experienced that rather sent him off the map. Ever since 2006, he has disputed the validity of the bill. Verizon did offer to reduce it by half, however, utility officials reportedly suggested that he should not pay. So then the bill was sent to those nice, thoughtful people who work at a collecting agency.

"We go to great lengths to educate our customers on their products and services so that they avoid any unintended bills," Philip Santoro, a spokesman for Verizon Communications, and Michael Murphy, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, told the Golbe by e-mail.

Bob St. Germain has reportedly not yet contacted the Federal Trade Commission, but has invited the help of two state senators and the attorney general's office.

In these stories, there is always a part I don't understand. I am sure Verizon has added up its sums correctly. Equally, I am sure that the St. Germain family acted in good faith and had no idea that they would be charged such an absurd amount for something so patently ephemeral.

However, how much management time at Verizon has already been spent fielding St. Germain's entreaties? How much management time has been dedicated to this rather than to more pressing matters, such as feeding the hordes who are starving for a Verizon iPhone? Might there not be a better solution than apparent intransigence? I am sure Oprah could solve this one in 30 seconds. 30 seconds of Oprah's time costs around $18,000, doesn't it?

Update: Verizon sent a letter to the Boston Globe (copied to me), objecting to the Globe's characterization of the story. Howard Waterman, executive director of public relations for Verizon Wireless Northeast Area wrote: "This story paints an inaccurate picture about the clear disclosure of calling plan information we provide and neglects to include any of the many tools available to our customers to help manage their accounts.

He continued: "The wireless industry is extraordinarily competitive and customers have choices. We work to win, and keep, customers every day--and we understand our customers don't like surprises. Neither do we--it's bad business. Which is why we clearly explain service plan details in brochures, during the purchase process, in our customer agreements and again through confirmation letters. We provide access to tons of account information through the MyVerizon Web page, and by dialing #BAL (balance information), #DATA (data usage), and #MIN (available minutes)."

Rising to his theme, he added: "We also provide numerous tools through the Internet to manage your family's cell phone use, including the ability to: set voice and messaging allowances and receive free text alerts when a family member nears or reaches their limit; designate specific times when a family member can't call, message or use data on his/her cell phone; create lists of blocked phone numbers to prevent unwanted calls and text messages from being sent/received."

He concluded with: "At Verizon, we believe in upholding the highest ethical standards. Anything less would be unacceptable."

It all seems rather complicated, doesn't it?