Virgin Mobile says it will be substantially reducing the outstanding balance for an 80-year-old man from Amherstburg who is visually impaired and is facing $13,000 worth of charges on his cell phone bill.
“People were just giving me the runaround,” Willie Guerard said. “When they see an old man at 80-years-old, they figure I lost my marbles and was incapable of doing anything.”
Guerard and his wife Yvonne, said when they got the phone at a Walmart earlier this year, the employee told them there would be a $200 limit on the account and if usage charges went above that, the phone would be cut off.
Virgin Mobile said that Guerard “consented to reinstate data” each month. It said it also informed him when he hit both $300 and $500 worth of overages by email and by text.
After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the company said it removed spending caps on accounts up until July 8 so people would not be without service, but informed customers they would still have to pay for overages. It was in this time period Guerard said his bill jumped, and not just by a bit.
“I paid a bill $144 and the following week after, I get a bill for $5,000 and $7,000 and I don’t know what it’s for,” Guerard said, adding that he spoke with an agent for Virgin Mobile who told him he would have to pay the balance.
“I said well I haven’t got that kind of money and if I had then I probably wouldn’t pay it because I don’t think I owe that.”
Guerard said the phone was meant for calling friends and family, both he and his partner Yvonne say they are not tech savvy and can’t see how its possible they could have used that much data.
In emailed responses to questions from CBC, Virgin Mobile said Guerard was an active data user and requested to increase his data plan twice since getting the phone in February, first from two gigabytes to four gigabytes and then to a 10 gigabyte plan.
This assumption that everyone is able to navigate the Internet in the exact same way is really unfair.”– Laura Tribe
It also said that Yvonne signed a two-year agreement on behalf of Guerard for the phone.
The couple said they do not recall having any conversations with agents about increasing a data plan and said they did not receive any sort of contract when they got the phone.
Guerard said he now has a phone from Koodo and is concerned how this incident will affect his credit rating.
After being contacted by the CBC, Virgin Mobile said that while Guerard is no longer a customer, it will be “in touch with him to reduce the outstanding balance significantly.”
It says for the months of June, July and August Guerard used 104 gigabytes of data.
The company said for every 100 megabytes above the 10 gigabytes included in Guerard’s plan, it would cost an extra $10 dollars, after that the price jumps to $150 per gigabyte.
“That is hours and hours of either video conferencing, using zoom calls, streaming Netflix, Facetime video calls [and] really intensive AV content,” OpenMedia Executive Director Laura Tribe said.
“This is not e-mails.”
Tribe said her organization has seen many instances of people surprised by overage charges but the amount in this case is exceptional.
“Beyond just a legal or technical obligation, it is wildly unthinkable that someone would hit a $6,000 cell phone bill and it would not in any way trigger some kind of prompt from the company, between the usage at a $60 or $70 per month plan and $6,000, to say something’s wrong,” Tribe said.
Tribe said people, especially seniors, do need more education on the meaning of their cell phone bills.
“If you don’t grow up understanding megabytes and gigabytes of data, that’s a really useless metric for you and it doesn’t mean anything.”
She said the the moral responsibility is with the company to communicate with the customers, especially ones that may not use text or email in the same way as others.
“If the communication methods are ones that senior citizens are not familiar with or able to navigate, then I don’t think that counts as sufficient communications,” Tribe said.
“If they got this phone to keep in touch with their family to have a phone to make phone calls with, why didn’t someone call them and actually communicate with them and I think this assumption that everyone is able to navigate the Internet in the exact same way is really unfair.”