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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/23/2010 8:07:53 PM ET 2010-06-24T00:07:53

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with the telecommunication companies we use. We love all the cool things we can do with wireless phone and broadband Internet technology. But we’re not always satisfied with the service we get for our money.

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Many unhappy customers contact the Federal Communications Commission. The agency gets more than a million complaints each year about telecommunications companies. I recently spoke with Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Q:The commission surveyed cell phone users and you found that about one in six customers, that would be about 30 million people, have experienced what you call “bill shock.” This is when your monthly wireless bill dramatically jumps in price – sometimes by hundreds of dollars – without warning. What causes bill shock?

A: It can be caused by a lot of things. One consumer said their bill tripled in a month because they had been charged with mobile-to-mobile minutes that they had been told were free. Someone else got $500 worth of charges from unknown numbers. Somebody else thought that rollover minutes were going to carry from one plan to another and they didn’t. International roaming is an area that can rack up very high bills very quickly.

Q: I know the commission wants to deal with this. You recently asked for public comment on a plan that’s used in Europe to avoid bill shock. Can you explain what they do over there?

A: The European Union requires wireless carriers to give people notice when they are in danger of getting an unusual charge on their bill. The carrier must send a text or voice message to that wireless phone. It’s a very simple way to alert people that they may be getting into dangerous territory.

If you got a notice that said you are now at 80 percent of your plan minutes and here’s how many you have left before you have excess charges, you could do a number of things. You could simply cut down on your data or text usage or you might call your carrier and decide to go to a higher level plan.

Q: How is it working in Europe?

A: I think it’s going quite smoothly there. It has not been a big technical problem for the carriers.

Q: So you’re not suggesting any kind of limits on charges; you’re just want people to know when they’re about to get hit with unexpected charges or fees?

A: Correct. It’s all about letting customers know what’s going on. Communication services are complicated. A lot of the fee structures are complicated. And when people feel that they don’t understand what’s going on they are vulnerable to paying more than they should. So I think this kind of simple, transparent notification of what’s going on is good for both business and consumers.

Q: I’m sure you are going to hear from the industry. How important is it that you hear from the public?

A: We’re very eager to hear what people have to say. The Federal Register Noticegives details on how anyone can comment. The deadline is July 6.

Q: The FCC also deals with consumer fraud.  One deceptive practice that just won’t go away is called cramming. That’s when a third party puts a charge on your phone bill for a product or service you did not order. How does it happen?

Dishonest companies have all kinds of devious technical ways to ring up a charge on your bill for a service you may not want.

Cramming is on the increase right now. So we’re looking at that very seriously. These cramming charges can be small but they add up. They might just be a couple of dollars, but if a company is doing that over and over again to a lot of people, it’s a lot of money for them. And even if it’s only a few dollars, it’s money you shouldn’t have to pay.

Q: How do we protect ourselves?

A: The best protection here is really vigilance. Read your phone bill very carefully. See if there’s a charge on there that shouldn’t be. If so, contact that company. If they will not remove the disputed charged, check with your phone company to see if your service will be cancelled if you don’t pay that portion of the bill. And complain to the FCC. We are monitoring this very carefully and working on ways to deal with the problem.

Q: Let’s look at another consumer gripe – early termination fees. They discourage you from switching to the competition if you get poor service. Can the commission do anything about this?

A: There is no uniform way in which different carriers implement these early termination fees. Some pro-rate them over a period of time while others pro-rate them very slowly until the end of your contract. Some wireless companies say they are there to pay for the discount you get on the phone; others say that they are there for some other reason.

It really is difficult for consumers to understand what these fees are about and how they’re going to impact them when they compare carriers. We will be talking to the industry about how to make all of this clearer and more useful to consumers.

For now, the best advice is to ask. Ask if there’s any early termination fee. Are there charges you need to tell me about? What is this going to mean in terms of my contract? Until a time when all of that information is readily and very clearly available, they will certainly tell you if you ask.

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