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Cruising For a Bruising With Roaming Cell Phone Charges

The ABC News Fixer helps vacationer, and AT&T shows some good will.

ByABC News
November 6, 2015, 2:55 PM

— -- Judy Wilson of Waco, Texas hit the high seas with her relatives for a mini-family reunion aboard a cruise ship. They had a great time shopping, dining and island-hopping … until Judy got whacked by more than $2,700 in cell phone charges! Little did she know, while she was cruising the ocean, her mobile phone was doing some roaming of its own -- resulting in an unwelcome surprise at the end of the trip.

Read Judy’s original letter to the ABC News Fixer below, and see how The Fixer helped get rid of Judy’s giant phone bill. Also, check out tips for the next time you plan to go overseas with your mobile phone.

TUNE IN to "Good Morning America" Saturday for more on this story from The ABC News Fixer. And do you have a consumer problem? The ABC News Fixer may be able to help. CLICK HERE to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

Dear ABC News Fixer: I went on a cruise with family members. I purchased the ship’s Wi-Fi package and then someone told me about the “AT&T Passport” international plan, so I signed up for that, too.

One day toward the end of the cruise, my phone service suddenly started roaming and picking up data. I rushed to turn it off, but by then I had already incurred over $2,700 in international charges.

I have been with AT&T for many years. I talked to their international services people several times, and finally they cut the bill in half, but I still can’t pay it. Someone in customer retention said not to worry, she would handle it, but she never did and I could not get a call back after that.

I paid $525, which was all I could. I’m a widow on Social Security. My phone service has been suspended and I’m worried I will lose my number. Please help – my phone is for my safety.

- Judy Wilson, Waco, Texas

Dear Judy: Looks like your phone was having a little vacation of its own. You told the ABC News Fixer that one morning, you suddenly heard a dinging sound and were surprised to see that your phone was receiving texts and other info.

You said you quickly shut it off – you thought it had been on airplane mode, but apparently it wasn’t – and then hoped for the best. When the cruise finally docked at home, you got the shock of your life when the phone company informed you about this giant bill of $3,167, which included the $2,721 in data charges.

The bummer is that while you thought you were doing the right thing in buying the Passport plan, that calling plan didn’t apply your cruise trip. AT&T has other plans specifically for travel on certain cruise lines.

As you noted in your letter to The Fixer, after your first appeal, they made a good will gesture and cut the bill in half. When you inquired further because the bill was still so huge, someone said they’d help – but then you said you couldn’t get a call back. Meanwhile, you paid what you could, but because it wasn’t the full amount required on the payment plan they had set up, the account got suspended.

We reached out to AT&T and asked about that second offer of help and whether anything more could be done. An AT&T spokeswoman told us that after that rep promised to assist you, they went back and saw the first credit and apparently figured the phone company had already helped. However, in light of the lack of follow-up, the phone company decided to make a second good will credit, bringing your bill to zero (and actually resulting in a credit, as you had paid what you could before) and restoring your phone service.

You said you were grateful to get your service back and won’t make the same mistake again.

With holiday travel season soon upon us, it’s a good time to remind everyone to do some mobile phone research before going abroad. When choosing a temporary international phone plan, read ALL the fine print, especially whether you’ll be covered in every country you visit. Cruise trips may require buying special cruise coverage to account for not only the ports of call but on-board calls and data usage. If you’re confused, call your mobile phone company and ask to speak to someone about the right plan. Whatever you choose, keep careful track of your data; overages can get costly.

If you only want Internet access on your cruise, get the ship’s Wi-Fi package and be sure to connect to that (and turn off your phone’s roaming and data usage).

Note that if you are cruising close to a port, even though you’re still on the water, your phone will start picking up service from whatever country you are near. Which brings us to our favorite tip: Just turn off the phone and lock it in your cabin’s safe. Then you won’t get any charges and you can actually enjoy your vacation in peace.

- The ABC News Fixer

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