March 07, 2014 | By: Laurie Campbell

How about a $22,000 cellphone bill? Now that's a debt problem.

Take the case of Canadian Matt Brui. Returning from a vacation in Mexico last year, he discovered he owed his cellphone carrier $22,000 in data roaming charges. Turns out Brui’s young son unwittingly ran up the charges in Mexico by watching YouTube videos. Complaining that the service provider ought to have flagged and restricted the usage, Brui managed to work out a deal with his carrier that reduced his new debt problem to a few hundred dollars. His horror story – otherwise known as “bill shock” – was extreme but not unusual.

In recent times, many other Canadians have been stunned by the cell phone bills they have received. While their cases may not be nearly as severe as Brui’s, they nonetheless involved cellphone bills that put a real dent in monthly budgets and further contributed to existing problems with debt. Also, financial problems presented themselves. Lapsed payments came into play with the threat of a good credit scores turning bad. Desperate measures also took the form of increased credit card usage with people unwisely borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Anything to stay connected by cell.

A lot of Canadians have come to feel they’ve been taken for a ride in the wireless universe. One poll from 2013 showed 60 per cent of cell phone users were angry about telecom practices, and not just in relation to roaming charges and claims that carrier charges are among the highest in industrialized nations. A furor also surrounded restrictive contracts and what many described as extremely poor customer service. The anger has been so vocal that the federal government took steps to moderate practices within the telecom industry. Other horror stories illustrate why.

Last year, Canadian Press (CP) reported that “when a Canadian tried to cancel his cellphone contract after his legs were crushed in a freak accident and he lost steady income, he was told ‘you would have needed to die’ to be let off the hook.” Meanwhile, CP told of another case “when the mother of a grown man with Asperger’s Disorder tried to cut the cord on a three-year contract her son had activated, they were forced to pay $3,600, even though he was on disability income and not capable of understanding what he’d signed up for.”

We can thank the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for having implemented a new wireless code last December that is helping to curb unreasonable telecom behaviour. Consumers can now cancel wireless contracts without fees after two years. Charges also have been capped for extra data at $50 per month and for international data roaming at $100 per month. So it appears the days of extreme “bill shock” are fading. Though, come to think of it, even if you cap out at say $200 a month with basic cellphone fees and extra charges, that’s no small potatoes as an annual budget outlay of $2,400 for the privilege of communicating by phone.

Now, I know the lure of today’s technological wonders is great. But let me just introduce another appealing notion – the lure of saving money on your cellphone communications. The truth is, talk these days is not cheap, which is why it’s important for cellphone users to set an affordable figure for cellphone usage, build it into a personal monthly budget, and stay on track so as not to contribute to any existing debt problems. Just remember, a home PC offers a more affordable way to share stuff and take in videos or movies on the internet. Above all, know exactly what you’re getting into before you sign a cellphone contract. Always ask yourself: are you getting the best current deal suited to your needs?

Who, after all, wants to be shocked by a phone?


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