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Hundreds of Verizon customers are battling data over-limit fees: Money Matters
In the last week, I've heard from about 400 Verizon customers, mostly in Ohio but some from other states too. Most have iPhones. Some have Droids. All have seen their data use through Verizon jump significantly -- doubling or tripling since the spring in many cases, even though their cell phone habits haven't changed. Data costs money. It's been an interesting week. Last weekend, I wrote about a sudden surge in my family's cell phone data through Verizon. In my unscientific survey that lasted one week, every friend and acquaintance I asked said they were having the same problem: Their monthly data use had been soaring in recent months for no apparent reason. In some cases, using more data meant hefty over-limit fees. Well, well, well. Since my column ran a week ago, I've heard from about 400 Verizon customers, mostly in Ohio but some from other states too. Most have iPhones. Some have Droids. All have seen their data use through Verizon jump significantly -- doubling or tripling since the spring in many cases, even though their cell phone habits haven't changed. Data costs money. If you're getting hit by data over-limit charges, you might take comfort knowing you're not alone, no matter what Verizon tells you. And you may be encouraged by a couple of things: I've gotten a few answers this week. And I'm not done yet.   To check your phone's Wi-Fi settings: On an iPhone, go to Settings, then Cellular. Go all the way to the bottom. Make sure the Wi-Fi Assist toggle is off (not green). On a Droid, the button is called Avoid Bad Wi-Fi or Smart Network Switch or something similar, depending on the phone. Go to Settings, then Wi-Fi, then Menu, then Advanced. You should see some sort of Wi-Fi connection option that you can turn off. Like me, many Verizon customers' data use is soaring even when they're on their home Wi-Fi the majority of the time. Even when their phone settings are changed to prevent the phone from switching to data if the Wi-Fi is weak. Verizon is logging data on people's accounts when they are sleeping and not using their phones.  Or being used when their phones are off. Or when the phone's owner has died. A typical person who uses his phone a lot while not on Wi-Fi for things like email, GPS, or checking Facebook might use 2 GB a month. If you watch a lot of videos, or stream, or download things while not on Wi-Fi, you'll use a lot more. One unhappy Verizon customer is Barb McCullough of Parma Heights. She has an old flip phone that can't use data. Data is blocked on the line. But Verizon says her phone is using data. Granted, the amounts are minuscule -- 1.02 MB a month (not GB, but MB). But this ridiculous "data usage," which seems impossible, makes her skeptical of her entire bill from Verizon. McCullough noticed this data use on her flip phone after digging into her bill. The bigger problem is that she and her husband four months ago decided to cut their phone bill by $40 a month by downsizing from unlimited data to a 6 GB plan. Her husband had been using only about 4 GB, so 6 GB seemed like more than enough. But since changing plans in April, he keeps getting alerts every month that he's near his limit, even though he's almost always on their home Wi-Fi. And Verizon hasn't been able answer why McCullough's "dumb" phone with no data or internet capability is using data, she said. Then there's Ron Staso of Cleveland. His family's use has jumped from 30 GB a month to almost 60 GB, according to Verizon. Staso can't figure out why. He just knows Verizon says he racked up over-limit fees of $1,600. After two decades with Verizon, Staso changed to T-Mobile. "I have not had any problems since I switched to T-Mobile," he said. But he refuses to pay the $1,600. Julie Wilson's over-limit charges are less dramatic but she's just as ticked off. Her family's usage has more than doubled in the last four months, from 2.5 GB to about 6 GB, again with no change in cellular habits. When the New York resident complained to Verizon about her $15 over-limit fee, they suggested she change plans. But that would cost her $40 more a month, above the $104 she's paying right now.  She refuses to change from her grandfathered, lower-priced plan.   To file a complaint about Verizon with the FCC Online: By phone: 1-888-225-5322. (888-CALL-FCC) When Theresa Cancila of Baltimore called Verizon recently to complain about her family's head-scratching increase in data, she got talked into increasing her plan to save money. Verizon assured her she could get 8 GB a month for the same cost as her current 6 GB. But instead of her bill remaining the same, she got charged a $15 over-limit fee for going over 6 GB, plus $10 more for the new plan that was supposed to be the same cost. She's furious and thinks Verizon is squeezing customers.  "They keep changing the data plans so you keep getting sucked into higher plans," she said. "It's funny because I have been asking people, 'Have you noticed you are blowing through a lot of data lately?' And every time I am getting, 'Yes!' " Perhaps few cases are more stunning than Joyce Shinn's. Her son Stephen is almost always on Wi-Fi, but a few months ago, he started exceeding his 18 GB per month plan. That's more than a lot of families use combined. But her son ran over, racking up $75 in over-limit fees last month. He swears he hasn't changed his cell phone habits. "I talked to Verizon and they gave me some bull about his turning off some setting or another," said Shinn, of Highland Heights. "My son, like most young adults, is pretty phone savvy so I was sure he knew what to do." The troubling part of Shinn's data usage woes is this: Her husband died 18 months ago. "I kept his phone active until recently so I could deal with any business or other calls that might come in that needed to be addressed. " His phone suddenly started using small amounts of data. Shinn insists her late husband's phone isn't used for anything other than looking at phone numbers of missed calls or dealing with incoming calls. How, she asks, is her late husband's phone using data? Overall, she's upset about the over-limit fees -- $75 on her son's account and $30 on hers. But more than that, she's upset that she's being deceived. "We are definitely being ripped off," Shinn said. Karen Savena of Broadview Heights feels the same. Her oldest son has a 6 GB per month plan, and usage has been inexplicably soaring since spring. When he reaches his data limit each month, he immediately shuts off his data. Yet every month for the last four month, his data exceeded his limit. The totals: 6.00900; GB 6.00200; GB 6.01100 GB; and 6.00400 GB. How did he exceed 6 GB? Verizon notified him when he reached his limit. It's the notification that Verizon sent that pushed him over. Yes, the alert is what caused the $10 over-limit fee. If that doesn't make you irate, chew on a few things I learned this month when I talked with Stephen Van Dinter, a manager for Verizon's Great Lakes region. Verizon insists that many customers' problems hinge on the infamous "Wi-Fi Assist" button, Van Dinter said. With iPhones, this is automatically "on" under iOS9, which was introduced a year ago. This allows the phone to switch to costly data if the phone decides the internet connection is poor. What's the definition of "poor"? Dunno. Right now, that's a secret. But it racks up data. With Droids, the default on this Wi-Fi function is off. However, even customers with Droids are seeing surges in data.  Verizon says that when my phone records, and those of hundreds of other people, show data usage in the middle of the night, that's not really accurate. If the records show you used data at 1:47 a.m., for example, when you were fast asleep, that may not be accurate. Verizon reports data in six-hour windows, Van Dinter said. So data usage at 1:47 a.m. may not really have been at 1:47 a.m., he said. "It could be at any hour in that six-hour time frame."  I believe Verizon realizes it has a problem with over-limit charges. That must be the reason the company just this week rolled out its "safety mode" feature for all new plans at no extra charge. It works like this: When you reach your data limit, whatever level you're paying for, Verizon will allow you to continue using data -- but at a much slower speed of 128 kbps for the rest of the billing cycle. So you'll go over your limit, but you won't pay extra, Van Dinter said. Until this past week, "safety mode" cost $5 a month unless you had a new plan of 16 GB or more. So if you were a normal family with 2 or 4 or 8 GB, which is enough for most households, you had to pay extra for "safety mode." Until now. So back to my account. My family's use has basically doubled from 8 GB to 16 GB a month. The Verizon manager, Van Dinter, said that a supervisor in customer service could dig into the specifics of my account and answer a lot of the questions about my usage. That should help me answer other people's questions and we can all get to the bottom of this mystery that is dipping into our wallets. I'm still waiting for that follow-up call. I have a long list of questions for Verizon, and a few for Apple. Here they are: Why are people's phones using data at times when they're on their home Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi Assist button is off? If there's any truth to that six-hour window thing, consider this: I walked my dog at 8 a.m. Tuesday. I walked him again at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. In between that time, I didn't leave my house except to take out the trash and to check the mailbox. (It was too darn hot!) I didn't leave my property for about 24 hours. I was on my home's very strong Wi-Fi. My Wi-Fi Assist button is off. Why did my phone ping cellular data 11 times during this period? Why are people's phones using data in the middle of the night when the phones aren't being used and are turned off or on do-not-disturb?  Why do people still go over their data even if they totally turn off their data as soon as they're notified that they're at their limit? How can phones with the data function blocked use data? Do new (replacement) phones use data differently? Like if you get a new 6s to replace your old 6s? If Safety Mode is such a great customer service, why was it just offered as a free option this week for all customers with new plans? If Safety Mode is such as great customer service, why isn't it available for all customers?  If Verizon has known for a year that the Wi-Fi Assist button was causing many customers to use data without their knowledge, why not send a push text to all customers or include an alert with people's bills?  If the Wi-Fi Assist or Avoid Bad Wi-Fi features have been a problem for a year, why did customers start encountering data surges only four or five months ago? And the data use has continued to increase every month for many customers without explanation. When customers call Verizon to complain about data usage, why is the default response from customer service to recommend that they switch their plans and increase their data usage? Why aren't all customers encouraged to look at their Wi-Fi Assist or Avoid Bad Wi-Fi buttons, or their Background App Refresh button, or their Location Services, or other things that could drive up data use? Instead, the customary response given to customers is often: Buy more data. If the times of the data pings aren't necessarily accurate and are really only within a six-hour window, how is it that the phone call time stamps are accurate to the minute?   For people who have their Wi-Fi Assist/ Avoid Bad Wi-Fi buttons turned on, what's the definition of "poor" Wi-Fi? Who makes that determination? Apple or another phone manufacturer? Verizon?  I'd rather be the one to make that decision rather than allow my phone to decide what Wi-Fi strength is acceptable. Some people say that Verizon has told them that their phones sleep when they're not used for long periods. Supposedly, during this time, the phones revert to the LTE data network instead of Wi-Fi. Is this true?   Some people say that Verizon has told them their phones are pinged in the middle of the night to make sure they're working. Is this true? Will customers who were harangued into increasing their data usage be able to switch back to their old plan at the same price? I expect to get answers from Verizon, Apple, regulators and others. Stay tuned.
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