April 28, 2009 -- It's every digital denizen's worst nightmare.
You open up your cell phone bill and nearly pass out at the total.
So imagine how a caller named Alberto felt when he learned that his wireless carrier had hit him with a $62,000 bill for downloading the movie "Wall-E" for his nephew.
Last week, he told HLN money expert Clark Howard on CNN that he used a new wireless card to download the movie to his laptop while in Mexico.
"I downloaded the movie and they billed me for $62,000.00," he said. After contesting the charge, the carrier reduced the fee -- to a still painful $17,000.
Even though Alberto's story is an extreme, when it comes to cellular screw-ups, he's not alone.
Paul Eng, Web editor for the Consumers Union, said that in egregious cases, companies will often work with the customer to find a reasonable solution, but it's still best to avoid the situation altogether. And, even though most of us don't fall in the same category as Alberto, we can still fall victim to the same traps.
"Common sense rules here," Eng said. "Make sure you know what's included in the contract. Make sure there are no hidden fees. … You have to be really careful."
He recommends checking your bill every month and contesting a problematic charge as soon possible. If you're about to go on vacation and still want to stay connected, he said it's wise to do some research first so that you know what kind of roaming charges will apply and when.
Most of all, he said, if you're not sure how much a certain activity will cost, it's better to just say no to yourself.
"Resist temptation," he said. "If you just have no clue, better safe than sorry."
Still, even thinking they're doing the right thing, some cellular customers have gotten themselves into a bit of hot water with their phones and wireless cards. Meet five of them.
1. Football Fan Billed $27,000 for Streaming Game
A Chicago Bear's fan to the core, Wayne Burdick of Schaumburg, Ill., had to cheer on his team -- even while on a Caribbean cruise.
So using his laptop, a wireless card and Slingbox device that let him watch the game via an Internet connection, he tuned into watch the Bears battle the Detroit Lions.
But after a nice relaxing vacation, he returned home to a $27,000 bill from AT&T.
"When I originally got the bill… I was counting on the fact that it was fraud," he said.
But, charging him by the kilobyte, at the international rate, the company said he was roaming for the three hours it took to watch the game.
Burdick dug up the documentation to prove that he was not at sea but actually in port at Miami when he was watching the game, but the company stood firm. Even after Burdick pled his case to 14 different employees, they would only reduce the bill to $6,000.
Finally, after the Chicago Sun-Times ran his story and brought his case up with AT&T, the company dropped the charges.
And, Burdick said, the fiasco was worth at least something -- the Bears won the game.
2. One Month of Text Messaging + Teenager = $4,800
Gregg Christoffersen called it a "heart attack in an envelope."
When he saw the bill his 13-year-old daughter Dena had racked up by text messaging her friends, the Cheyenne, Wyoming, man was stunned.
In just one month, she sent and received enough text messages to justify (at least to the cell phone company) a nearly $4,800 bill.
"It was heart-stopping. It just so unreal," he said.
Verizon Wireless first gave his wife the news over the phone and when he first found out he said he was speechless. He and his wife suspended their daughter's cell phone privileges and grounded her for a year. But Christoffersen didn't stop there.
"I took a hammer to the phone," he said. Smashed to smithereens, he returned the phone to his daughter in a bag.
Christoffersen said he and his family had a text-less plan with Qwest Communications but when the company merged with Verizon earlier this year, unbeknownst to him, the ability to text was re-activated.
He and his wife had no idea their family's phones could send and receive text messages. But their daughter figured it out and quietly sent about 288 messages a day.
Verizon shut down their service for two days until they paid $300. At one point, Christoffersen wondered if he'd need to take out a bank loan to pay the bill. But after weeks of negotiating with an ally at Verizon, they were able to lower the bill to a far more manageable $120.
So, all's well that ends well. Except perhaps for Dena. Her father said that when they do get her a new phone, the text function is the first to go.
3. Using Cell Phone As Modem? $83,700
In 2007, a 22-year-old Canadian oil-field worker faced an astronomical $83,700 (C$85,000) cell phone bill, according to Reuters.
Piotr Staniaszek, who lived in rural Alberta, made headlines when his father brought his story to the media.
According to Staniaszek's father, who shares his name, the man thought he could use his phone as a modem for his computer. Thinking his unlimited browser plan with Bell Mobility (a division of Bell Canada) could handle it, he downloaded movies and other high-resolution files.
"He's working in the field sometimes, alone, in the shack. What to do? Drink vodka or go on the Internet?" the elder Staniaszek told Reuters. "Now it's $85,000 and nobody told him."
Even though Bell Mobility told Reuters that his plan was not intended to cover computer downloads, as a goodwill gesture, Staniaszek senior said the company pared down the charges to $2,790 (C$3,400).
4. Class Action Suit Brought Over $5,000 Overage Bill
In March, an Oklahoma woman filed a lawsuit against AT&T and RadioShack after a new netbook landed her with a $5,000 bill for exceeding her monthly data cap.
For $99.99, Billie Parks purchased the lighter and cheaper laptop cousin from RadioShack in December, according to the popular technology blog Ars Technica. With her new Acer Aspire One she signed a two-year contract for AT&T's mobile broadband service. For about $60 a month, the company offers 3G Internet access on the go.
In her complaint, Parks said that though she was warned by RadioShack that her first monthly bill might be a bit higher than expected, she was unaware that Internet data usage over 5GB would result in "astronomical additional charges running into the thousands of dollars," Ars Technica said.
Parks maintained that she and other RadioShack/AT&T customers were victims of fraud due to the companies "misleading" advertising.
"We're reviewing the suit and don't have a comment on it at this time," AT&T spokesperson Seth Bloom told Ars Technica in March. "But I can tell you that we go to considerable lengths to inform customers of the limits involved in these plans. We display the plan usage limits and overage rates on our collateral, terms and conditions, and on att.com. And customers can check their usage using myWireless Account or by using the usage monitoring capability on the AT&T Communications Manager application."
5. World Record? $218 Trillion Phone Bill
Whenever you start to sweat the sight of your phone bill, think of this.
In April 2006, a Malaysian man received a $218 trillion phone bill and was ordered to fork over the money within 10 days or face prosecution, The Associated Press reported.
After his father died earlier that year, Yahaya Wahad said he disconnected his late father's phone line. But Telekom Malaysia, the country's largest telecommunications provider, later sent him a 806,400,000,000,000.01-ringgit (U.S. $218 trillion) bill.
The company said the bill was for recent phone calls and said if he didn't pay up within 10 days he'd face legal proceedings.
"If the company wants to seek legal action as mentioned in the letter, I'm ready to face it," the Malaysian paper the New Straits Times quoted Yahaya as saying. "In fact, I can't wait to face it."
A company official, who declined to be identified, said at the time that Telekom Malaysia was aware of Yahaya's case and would address it. She did not provide further details.
According to The Associated Press, it was not clear whether the phone line had been used illegally or if the bill was a mistake.