Over the Limit: FOX25 Investigates uncovers cell data charges as customers sleep

Cell phone customers are paying for data they never use – racking up kilobyte charges when they sleep, when their phones are turned off and while they’re trying to download videos that never actually play, FOX25 Investigates uncovered.

One family contacted Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen in July when they saw their mobile data use mysteriously spike with no explanation – costing them as much as $50 extra a month on their AT&T bill.

It’s not just a problem with AT&T. Complaints to the FCC about data overages jumped more than 800 percent in the last three years and the federal agency has received numerous complaints in recent months, according to records obtained by FOX25 Investigates.

Heather and Tim Reneau showed FOX25 their monthly cell phone data usage climbed over the course of a year from about 3 gigabytes to a whopping 21.9 gigabytes in June.

They told FOX25 Investigates their children’s devices are Wi-Fi only and don’t have the ability to use data. The family’s phone bills showed many of the spikes in data usage happened overnight as the couple slept.

“At 12:31am on the 28th, my husband's phone pulled 175,000 kilobytes,” said Heather Reneau.

The Reneaus told FOX25 Investigates they were instructed to get new phones, which still didn’t resolve the issue and they say the charges kept coming – even when their new phones were turned off.

“Maybe there was a glitch, maybe... something that would explain why we went through almost double our amount of data and what I got was a lot of finger pointing at me, finger pointing at Apple and complete lack of accountability,” said Heather Reneau.

Do you feel like your data usage keeps going up and up? Eric Rasmussen FOX25 has some simple tips to keep your usage down and save money.

Posted by Boston 25 News on Sunday, October 30, 2016

Ohio State University researcher Chunyi Peng can’t say what happened in the Reneaus’ case, but told FOX25 Investigates hackers can steal data, leaving their victims to pay for the overages.

Peng has already warned the major cell phone carriers with her past findings on security loopholes, which could be targeted by hackers looking to steal data usage from unsuspecting customers. But she said other vulnerabilities could still exist.

Even when there’s no foul play, Peng says customers are also at risk of being charged for more data than they actually use.

“There is a gap from the network to your phone,” Peng told FOX25 Investigates. “If data is getting lost on the path from network to users, you will still be charged.”

Peng told FOX25 those who see that spinning wheel when unsuccessfully trying to stream a video are still being charged for the data – even when the video fails to play.

“You might be charged for something you never use,” said Peng.

Barbara Anthony, former state undersecretary of consumer affairs, told FOX25 Investigates the FCC doesn’t regulate contracts between cell phone companies and their customers and often refers the complaints back to the cell phone providers to resolve.

“There's actually very little regulation of cell phones,” Anthony told FOX25. “It's a good question about whether anybody's watching out for the consumer except for the consumer.”

The Reneaus say they spent hours on the phone with their provider and eventually got a refund – but not an explanation.

"We're facing an uphill battle to prove to them that we're not up all night streaming videos instead of being on our Wi-Fi or sleeping," said Reneau. "They put that on us.
FOX25 Investigates contacted AT&T about the Reneaus' case.

A spokeswoman apologized for any inconvenience and said the company stopped charging all customers for data overages in August.

T-Mobile says it abolished data overages on its network years ago.

Verizon told FOX25 it charges for data sent over its network and takes customer security seriously.