Virgin & Vodafone Out of Bundle Charges for 1GB of extra data are daylight robbery. What to do about Bill Shock?

Don't let your mobile phone bill shock you with out of bundle charges!

It’s sad that there still are companies out there turning a quick profit with disregard about who they trample over on the way. Virgin and Vodafone, that’s you guys. Today’s post is about out of bundle data charges and shock bills by the big mobile phone providers in the UK. How can we let companies get away with charging £26 for 1 GB of data, when they can sell the same data for £2 or less? What justifies the extra £24 and why do regulators let them get away with it? Do you know how quickly your charges can get out of hand? Vodafone charged this family £2,000 for 33GB of data. Just to contrast that, I get my normal 4G data at around £0.50 per GB with EE. That’s £1,970 extra that Vodafone is charging someone because the consumption of data wasn’t agreed. That’s like walking into McDonald’s, eating a BigMac you see on the counter and paying £1,000 for the privilege of doing so. You thought you said two burgers, in fact, you ordered one. We wouldn’t stand for that, would we?

Mobile phone bill shock is like walking into McDonald's, eating a BigMac you see on the counter and paying £1,000 for the privilege of doing so.Click To Tweet

The bystander effect, how we blame the technologically un-savvy.

It’s a well known psychological finding, the more bystanders there are in an incident, the less chance there is you’ll get help. If this happens, your best bet is pointing someone out and saying, you, help me please. Could this be happening in our tolerance of “bill shock”? The BBC said Ofcom was working on this five years ago, and yet still nothing? Why are they getting away with this?

It’s all too easy to put the blame on the customers. It’s their fault; they should learn to manage technology better, I saw some say. Some recommend installing a data monitoring tool. This means compromising our online privacy even more. No thanks. Some point towards your phone settings, indeed, I was on-top of them for two years, until I wasn’t anymore. But does the responsibility really lie with us alone? What do the naysayers say when this happens to someone like me? I have a degree in Computer Science and Psychology, definitely kind of tech savvy. Is the reason truly ignorance, or perhaps our human psychology is being exploited for extra profits?

Since I have a good level of self-serving bias, I’d like to convince you it’s the latter and I I’ve got some evidence for it. My background in psychology, computer science, business and tech start-ups gives me a unique perspective. By sharing this story, I hope that one day the situation will change.

The honeymoon period: rats in a cage and how it all began.

I signed up with Virgin on a 30-day sim-only rolling contract worth around £6. The promise was no-hassle, stress-free, contract-free great service with a decent amount of data. Whenever I’d come close to my data limit, Virgin would kindly let me know at 50%, 75% and 90% of consumption. Wonderful. This great feedback loop is rooted in behavioural psychology. Much like all of Skinner’s experiments with rats and food pellets this feedback loop resulted in a habit. The habit reinforced was that I’d simply shut off my data after the 90% warning. Thanks Virgin, so considerate. I had my doubts, could they not simply cut me off instead? It seemed good enough, better the devil you know I thought.

Reinforcement did it’s job. I kept shutting off my data, and my reward was avoiding punishment. After a year or so I finally gave in and upgraded to a £12 plan as I needed more data. One time they even charged me a tenner or two for going over the data allowance. It was fair enough, after all, they had been sending me an SMS saying I’ve nearly reached my limit. I must have forgotten to act on it. After my first £10 charge I paid more attention to the SMSs, it wasn’t too much work, although kind of annoying. I got the 90% warning, and I’d disable my data until the allowance was refreshed, the SMSs kept coming!

Things go quiet. Much like in divorce, communication stops.

Just like it often occurs before couples divorce, communication breaks down. Virgin stopped sending me messages about data being close to the limit from January 2017. I kept receiving the “your allowance has been refreshed” SMS, so I figured I had been using data within my limits. A reasonable assumption, my data usage must be under control.

I want to quit the gym and being charged without explicit consent.

Everything was fine until June. Without any sort of notification or warning, I received an invoice for £60! I’ll admit this amount is not the end of the world but its the principle at stake here. £60 is a lot of money to many, and months of wages in certain parts of the world where people live off $1.50 a day. £60 is about 30 malaria nets that can save lives in Africa, and if philanthropy is not your kind of thing, I’m sure we can all find a better use for £50 than to pay for a few gigs of your phone updating, and it could have easily been £2,000!

If you complain loudly enough, they will waive some of the charges and in some cases perhaps all. For me, Virgin went from nil, to £10 credit, to £25 credit, but I told them kindly to (you know what). I didn’t say that but I thought it, and I asked them to close my account. It then became a case of that Friends episode, when Chandler wants to quit the gym. I literally had to say; please cancel my account five times before they let me do so. Yes, I rejected a part-refund, but I will miss £50 as much as I will £25. It’s the ethical implications that bother me. No thanks.

Virgin also said they’d re-enable the notifications if I accepted the £25 part-refund and stayed with them. Not sure who or what disabled them in the first place and I’ll put this down to an uninformed rep, since if this is indeed a feature that was triggered on and off then it’s quite suspicious…

Why is this a big deal? If you are not aware, you can end up paying £364 in a couple of hours.

Modern mobile phones are data-eating monsters. They can quickly auto-update and use many gigs of data in just a day. You’ve shut off updates over 4G you say, but what if one day you enable it for 100MB and forget to disable it? A plausible scenario. At £26 per GB you will barely have to stream one Netflix movie in HD before you owe almost half a grand (£26 * 14GB =£364 = $468 USD). If you are one of the people forced to use 4G at home like me, I suggest you move to a company that has better policies asap!

Modern mobile phones are data-eating monsters. They can quickly auto-update and use many gigs of data in just a day. #billshockClick To Tweet

The ethical alternatives. Are there any? What should phone companies do?

The straight forward alternative is for companies like Virgin and Vodafone to cut you off if you are out of data. This is what EE does who so far have worked out well for me. EE displays your options when you are out of data and you are welcome to buy an extra bundle at a higher price if you’d like. I also switched my mobile to Tesco who offer “Bill Shock” protection. They disable your data if you hit a self-imposed limit. Funny enough they don’t let you set this limit less than £2.50, I wanted mine to be £0. At least it’s upfront and I’ll just see it as a part of my tariff as I am sure I’ll hit this cap multiple times but it will never be £10 or £60.

I asked Vodafone about this, who billed me £26 for 1GB of data, and they said it was not technically possible to do what EE or Tesco do. Odd. Since Vodafone, unlike Virgin, did in fact send me notifications to a dark corner of the web where you are unlikely ever to see them, I didn’t dispute their charge as much. They said it was not possible to send system notifications to my e-mail either. Fine, you robbed me for £26, and you told me you would (kind of), I just didn’t read the text on time. Who checks texts on routers anyway? Fair enough, I guess… I cancelled my account. The irony is they did offer to waive my charges if I upgrade my contract to a 12-month locking one. Really? The cheek of it.

How hard is it to do what EE and Tesco do, to stop serving data if you haven’t paid for it?

An educated guess here. I don’t own a big mobile phone company or work for one (maybe I should start one up next). Considering EE have done it, and using my programming background, I’d think it wouldn’t be very hard at all for Virgin and Vodafone to follow suit. These companies just have to decide to change their policies, but they don’t want to. Probably a day’s worth of work for their developer, if that. Maybe even a simple configuration change for functionality that probably already exists.

As a businessman, I can see some roadblocks in rewriting their terms of service, but they could use that anyway. After all, terms of service are meant to protect the customer as much as the company, something we made a big point of when writing our new terms at Chessable. My value to Virgin was £150 per year. To Vodafone I was around £360 per year. They lost me as a customer for £50 and £26 respectively. That’s poor business in my eyes. However, if they had managed a £2,000 charge then they would have made around six to twelve years worth of profit in a few days. You can start to see why they may keep things the way they are. The only question is why do we keep putting up with it!

What can we do?

Switch, switch, switch. Before you sign up to a service, ask about terms for allowances, how does it work? If they cut you off on reaching your data allowance like EE, go for it. If they say they send you notifications, beware, like Virgin, they might stop.

Of course, there are the small courts, but this is stress and extra time down the drain and only worth for the larger amounts. There are also formal complaints and resolution services, but I satisfied myself with writing this search engine optimised blog post (ha, what happens when you upset an internet marketer!), and submitted a complaint to Ofcom, who will reflect my voice in the yearly statistics. I will be one of those 24 out of 100,000 people with an official complaint. I suspect this only reflects 10% of us, with the majority of us remaining silent as is typical in surveys.

Having shed some light on the psychology, business and programming side of things, I have tried to persuade at least some of you that this practice by the mobile phone providers is simply daylight robbery. It’s made possible by wordy terms of service that no one ever reads. Companies like Vodafone and Virgin Mobile make vast profits to the tune of £350m per year and have no excuse not to change the way they work. Let’s stop putting up with it. After all, my £50, and your £50 could have made a huge difference in other places.