French tourist gets EUR16,000 billshock

According to the French site Actu, a 76 year-old French tourist received a huge EUR16,000 phone bill after he inadvertently left mobile roaming on while on holiday in Senegal.

His CSP – Bouygues – contacted him to inform him that he had exceeded his data allowance. According to Bouygues that included 9 text messages telling him he was being charged for roaming. But these messages seem not to have been understood by the customer. The customer said he didn’t pay attention to text messages and since he only intended to use the phone for voice calls, believed he was managing the situation.

Bouygues offered to reduce the bill by 50% – presumably negating their own share of the charges – but this once again illustrates the Wild West nature of travelling with a phone and the damaging effects for both customer and CSP when things go wrong. 

The story illustrates a few points.

  • Customers have become used to free roaming within Europe, making them unwary and vulnerable when they travel.
  • CSPs have a duty of care to customers and should always act defensively to protect them, as well as their own brand image. No customer should be able to rack up charges above a few hundred euros or pounds in any circumstances without a pre-agreement to authorise larger charges. In almost every case, higher charges are due to misunderstandings or fraud and are, in any case, unaffordable.
  • Communication channels have to be appropriate for customer support. Most people could have guessed that the appropriate way to contact the average 76 year old is not via text.
  • It’s important for CSPs not just to communicate with a customer but to ensure the customer understood the communication. Vulnerable customers need extra support. 
  • Data roaming should de facto be switched off. If a customer wishes to connect while roaming, the CSP should inform them what this will mean and what their spending limit is. Chatty apps and updates should all be prevented from connecting to the data network without authorisation. All customers should be informed every time they travel that their  apps have been turned off and turning them back on will incur charges.
  • Every customer should be offered a preferential roaming package when they travel. If the cost of data is more than the cost of the package they should automatically be switched to the package.

CSPs must do more to protect travellers. They must assume that the customer does not want, and cannot afford, large charges and act to prevent charges reaching disastrous levels. This protection must be extended not just to consumers but to all customers. Where a business customer is authorised to use their phone abroad, the circumstances and parameters should be agreed in advance with their firm.

What is particularly bad about this case is the phone could have been stolen and used fraudulently because no controls were in place to prevent large charges – other than an automated SMS notification which put the emphasis on the customer to take action. Instead, the emphasis should always be on the CSP to ensure the customer is safe and not going to come back from their travels to a nasty surprise.