Verizon forgives balance on $18,000 phone bill

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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Bob St. Germain said he was not sure at first whether to believe the Verizon official who called to tell him that the balance of his $18,000 cellphone bill had been forgiven.

The Dover resident’s dispute with the company over the mind-boggling bill dates to 2006 when, according to St. Germain, his son mistakenly racked up the staggering charges in just six weeks.

In a statement, the company confirmed it is no longer insisting St. Germain pay the bill.

He said it is “nice to see’’ Verizon erase the charges, but that the yearslong wrangling has been frustrating and time-consuming.

“It’s very unfortunate it’s been going on this long,’’ St. Germain said.

Last month, the Globe reported that his son, Bryan, now 26, incurred the charges by tethering his cellphone to a laptop computer to connect to the Internet. Bryan St. Germain said he did not know that a two-year promotional period — which included the free Web access — expired when his father renewed the family’s cellphone plan. As a result, Bob St. Germain received a bill more than 100 times higher than his normal statement.

Verizon said that after St. Germain complained, it eventually agreed to cut the $18,000 bill by half, to about $9,000. St. Germain disputes that, saying he never agreed to even a partial payment. Verizon then sent the nearly $9,000 bill to a collection agency. On Friday night, the company issued a statement saying it has concluded the remaining balance is “uncollectible’’ and that it considers the matter “closed.’’

“Bills of this nature are exceptionally rare given our policy of clear disclosure of price plan details at the point of sale and through confirmation letters, the customer’s ability to change price plans at any time without fees or extensions, and the many customer tools available for monitoring and managing voice data usage,’’ Verizon Wireless spokesman Michael Murphy wrote. “This combination of transparency, flexibility, and technology serves our customers very well.’’

The Federal Communications Commission said the Globe story about St. Germain’s predicament, along with hundreds of consumer complaints about “bill shock,’’ have prompted it to look into excessively high cellphone bills. The agency said it has asked its consumer complaint call center in Virginia to log complaints about bill shock separately so it can better gauge the extent of the problem.

The FCC is also accepting comments from the public, consumer groups, and industry specialists about outrageously high wireless cellphone bills as it considers increased industry regulation. One possibility is a rule similar to one enacted last June by the European Union that requires wireless providers to send a text message to users if they are about to incur expensive roaming charges or are nearing their data-usage limit for a particular month.

Joel Kelsey, a telecommunications policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, said the St. Germain case illustrates the need for phone users to have more control over how they are billed for phone usage. In recent years, cellphone statements have become increasingly complex, often spilling into a half-dozen pages or more.

“It’s outside the realm of consumer expectation that six weeks of wireless service should be the financial equivalent of a down payment on a house,’’ Kelsey said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at