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Emojis could cost you hundreds on your bill if you have an older phone

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note 3 are among the older phones that could turn emojis into pricey picture messages without telling you.

A shocked phone user, yesterday. PathDoc/Shutterstock

Phones as recent as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note 3 could cost you a fortune every time you give a friend a wink or a smile. Shocked users have discovered that smiley-face emojis and emoticons are unwittingly costing them hundreds in their phone bills.

Older phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S , S2 , S3 and S4, may handle emojis by turning them into picture messages, which cost more to send. The Galaxy Note , Note 2 and Note 3 and Galaxy Ace are also reported to be affected.

Emojis are little images that can be inserted into messages. They're an evolution of emoticons, which are letters and punctuation marks composed to look like a face or other shape -- like ";)" for example, which looks like someone winking.

Emojis actually appear in the message as a picture, showing everything from little yellow faces to items of food. Many phones and messaging services automatically translate emoticons into a corresponding emoji, and many include a range of emojis as options on your keyboard.

Newer phones are capable of sending emojis in normal text messages. But some phones send those emojis as picture messages, for which networks and carriers charge more. Symbols, emoticons and even email addresses can cause a phone to turn a short messaging service (SMS) text into a multimedia message service (MMS) picture message without telling you.

In one extreme example reported by the Daily Record, Paula Cochrane, of Airdrie in Scotland, was hit with a bill of almost £1,200 (roughly $1,840 or AU$2,350). Having signed up to a new contract with UK network EE, she at first thought she was simply using the phone more than she thought when the first monthly bill was £100.92, nearly three times as much as the £30 she expected. But worse was to come: the following month's bill was £449. Two more bills followed, with expensive picture messages taking the total to an eye-watering £1,192. Cochrane has taken the case to the UK's communication ombudsman, and it is yet to be resolved.

"There are a number of factors which can affect whether customers are charged for sending an emoji, usually by the settings on the handset and so [it] is a manufacturer, rather than a network, issue," an EE spokesperson said.

"We can confirm that as of April 2014, every Samsung mobile device has a default setting that classifies emoticon images as an SMS and not an MMS," a Samsung spokesperson said. "For older devices, if a message is going to be converted from an SMS into an MMS, a warning message is displayed to inform the user. We advise our customers to check their mobile phone tariffs if they are unsure of any charges related to SMS and MMS as well as the advisory notices displayed on their handset."

Apple, HTC, Nokia and Sony phones shouldn't convert an emoji-filled text into an MMS. Older Samsung phones will have this problem, but you can protect yourself by opening your Messaging app and clicking Settings > Text messages > Input mode, and selecting "UniCode" instead of "automatic".

Owners of older phones are advised to leave symbols, icons and emoticons out of their messages or even disable integration between their contact lists and Facebook.

One way around the problem is to use messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Chat, which are available for most phones. Messages are free no matter how many winky faces and glasses of wine and slices of cake you cram in there, although such apps do require an Internet connection and so will count towards your data allowance.