A B.C. father has refused to pay a $1,400 bill received from Rogers after his teenage son was charged for sending hundreds of texts to his girlfriend, despite a contract that includes unlimited texting in Canada.
"I thought he could text a thousand times a day, because that’s perfectly fine. He’s covered for all of Canada," said Alex Dunsmore of Kamloops, B.C. "His girlfriend lives four blocks away."
It started when Dunsmore's son's girlfriend downloaded a "free" texting app — from a U.S. company called HeyWire — to send free texts anywhere. When Dunsmore’s son Ryan texted her back, he had no idea it would incur a charge for long distance texts, routed through the U.S. then to his girlfriend in Canada.
“He was responding to a text.… He thought he was just texting down the street,” Dunsmore said. “Obviously it took a long, different path [via] Arlington, Illinois."
Over 1,000 texts sent
Dunsmore said Rogers allowed 1,300 of those texts to go through in one month — all to the same number — without informing him his son's $35 "unlimited" texting plan was going way over the basic charge.
“Why was I not notified, as the legally responsible person in this contract, that there was suddenly this atypical spending?” Dunsmore asked.
He said this type of long distance texting should trigger a notice to the customer, similar to the one sent when cellphone customers leave Canada and face roaming charges.
“I think that somebody somewhere has decided not to [notify customers] about this because they don’t have to.”
When Dunsmore got the bill — $400 for one month, including the texts — he complained to Rogers and refused to pay for that portion.
“I think it’s a deliberate process on Rogers's part to try to get more money out of their clients,” he said.
Dunsmore continued to pay for the services he signed up for. He appealed to Rogers to forgive the texting charges, he said, but got nowhere. He said the company told him his son should have recognized the U.S. area code on the number his girlfriend was given by the app provider.
Dunsmore pointed out that his 16-year-old doesn’t know all the area codes inside or outside Canada, and that Ryan's girlfriend told him it was a special number for free texting.
“She feels pretty bad. Not that it’s her fault or anything,” Ryan Dunsmore said.
'No charge' to app user
Ryan’s girlfriend had downloaded the app on her iPod through the iTunes App Store. HeyWire’s advertising on its App Store page says there is "no charge to you even if your friends don’t have the app."
"Both parties are thinking it’s free," Alex Dunsmore said. "There is no notification on her end, either. As far as she’s concerned, she’s texting for free."
Because the texting charges went into arrears, Rogers eventually cut off both Dunsmore's son's and daughter's phones — and charged him $800 for "cancelling" the contracts. (Dunsmore doesn't have his own cellphone).
"They charged me $400 [each] because the contract was terminated early. But they were the ones that terminated it because I simply didn’t pay the money in dispute," he said.
Rogers told CBC News in an email that it’s up to parents to monitor their teen’s usage.
"I recognize that the customer may find this frustrating," spokesperson Leigh-Ann Popek wrote. "But the account holder is ultimately responsible for the account. We do not monitor how many texts or calls customers make. But we offer the tools to allow our customers to keep a close eye on their usage.
"Customers are able to see their current usage through our free Rogers MyAccount app on their device or online at www.rogers.com. This is especially helpful for parents."
'A lot of money in it'
Vancouver app developer and industry commentator Ian Bell said he believes it’s in Rogers's financial interest not to inform parents when these kind of charges are mounting.
"Carriers need to do a better job of helping people understand when they are incurring these charges as they are happening. But they are not, because there’s a lot of money in it."
Rogers said it has no business relationship with HeyWire and does not share in any revenue generated from people downloading the app. "Rogers would not be compensated by HeyWire, nor would we compensate HeyWire for any downloads, users, usage of their application," Popek said.
However, telecom companies do get a cut of the long-distance texting charges billed to their customers.
"Part of the long distance charge goes to Rogers, part goes to the U.S. carrier," said Marc Choma of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. He said Canadian telecoms don't reveal how much their cut is, even to him.
Choma also said the popularity of texting has exploded, especially among teens. Last year, he said, 78 billion texts were sent from within Canada, compared to 56.4 billion in 2010. He said he doesn't know how many of those texts were sent via apps.
Companies 'always looking for another sucker'
Commentator Bell said telecoms and app marketers count on customers blaming themselves for excessive charges and simply paying the bills.
"People get caught in it, then they stop using the app forever and then they move on," Bell said. "These [app] companies are always looking for another sucker."
Dunsmore’s bill from Rogers — for the texts, contract cancellations and other fees — eventually reached almost $1,400, and was sent to a collection agency, but he said he won’t pay it out of principle.
Since he went public with his story, Dunsmore's texting charges have been cancelled by Rogers, but he remains on the hook for the cancellation fees.
"Cellphone companies are getting a reputation, and I believe rightly so, of actually bullying people around," he said. "This is about what is reasonable and what is right."