Technology Science - Bell overcharges B.C. customers for calls

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One Bell Mobility cell phone customer in B.C.'s Okanagan is warning others to double-check their phone bills after she was charged upwards of $30 a month for long distance calls from cities she has never visited.

Since May, Kelowna resident Amy Johnston has been receiving cell phone bills with small inconsistencies.

"On my cell phone bill, I was noticing an abnormal number of long distance calls," she said. "I then noticed that they were saying that my calls were being placed from Kamloops or even Fort McMurray â€Â" two places where I don't spend any time. So I knew that something was up."

Johnston said she wasn't in Kamloops during the billing cycle, and has never even been to Fort McMurray.

According to Bell, the issue lies in a newly-installed cellular tower that was incorrectly coded.

"They were having a problem with the Okanagan area and I don't know exactly what the problem is, but there's something that's re-routing our calls so that they're going through Kamloops or Fort McMurray," Johnston said.

Johnston has been credited for some of the false charges, one phone call at a time, but is still being forced to scour her phone bill every month.

"To be honest, I can't even be sure that the problem is fixed because my bill now comes out to being 50 pages long because I have them crediting me for $90 here, then I get charged an extra $30 for these long distance calls that I haven't made."

Customers told to monitor problem themselves

Bell media relations declined to do an interview with CBC News, but said in an email that only a small number of customers were impacted.

Amy Johnston says telecom giant Bell should notify customers when it makes an error. Amy Johnston says telecom giant Bell should notify customers when it makes an error. Jackie Sharkey/CBC

But Johnston believes the problem is much bigger.

"I went home and talked to my roommate and ... her Bell bill, which was normally $80, came in at $130, and so then I looked at it and was able to show her that obviously she wasn't in Kamloops or Fort McMurray either," she said.

"So I did start kind of polling the people that I knew ... and within a couple of hours I heard back from at least a half-dozen people."

The problem, Johnston said, is many customers have no idea they're being erroneously charged.

In an email to CBC News, Bell "invited customers in the Okanagan area to review their bills and contact us if they believe there are any errors."

"They're not taking accountability for this, they're not taking ownership for it," Johnston said.

"They're requiring their clients, who are paying a lot of money for this service, to go through their Bell bills line by line and isolate the problem themselves. It just feels like a problem that they know about and something that they should be employing their employees to go through with a fine-tooth comb."

No regulation of billing errors

Johnston said Bell could potentially be raking in huge profits for false charges.

"I'm just worried about the fact that there are likely thousands of customers in this area being affected by this," she said. "And if you think about $30 a month times 1,000 customers erroneously charged, that's a lot of money. Where is that going?"

But because wireless services are unregulated, Bell has no obligation to tell customers of billing errors â€Â" even if the company is at fault.

"People are still in the mindset that wireless is like wireline telephone, and people are familiar with the [Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission] in Ottawa that looks after telephone regulation," said John Lawford, a lawyer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

"But unfortunately, for 15 years now they haven't regulated wireless services actively. They say that competition looks after problems like this, and if you don't like your provider your remedy is to shop around."

Lawford said unhappy customers should complain to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, a new ombudsman created about five years ago. The problem, he said, is the commission is unlikely to act on a problem unless it receives hundreds of complaints.

With files from the CBC's Jackie Sharkey

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