Mobile Data Roaming: How To Get Your Money Back

I first wrote this piece back in November 2014. I’ve edited it now to reflect the final resolution of the dispute with my mobile telephone provider, more than a year after I first questioned my Data Roaming bills from them. After much argument, they agreed to refund all my charges for a roughly seventeen month period. But only after I returned the offending SIM to them. I doubt I am the only person affected by this type of situation, but I probably am the most determined and fortunately was sufficiently knowledgeable to present good arguments. Notwithstanding that EU removes roaming charges soon, I would strongly urge telecoms regulators worldwide to investigate this matter as I do believe there is a possibility providers are knowingly distributing SIMs that cannot distinguish between ‘home’ and ‘roaming’ and are therefore over-charging customers.

I had an interesting and salutary experience when travelling in Germany in the autumn of 2014. I was using my Blackberry to read my emails, careful (I thought) to be connecting to WiFi in the airport, hotel and so forth.

When I got back to Jersey, I received a text message from my provider, Sure, alerting me that I had high mobile data usage. I was surprised, since I thought I’d been using WiFi almost all the time.

It seems that even when the little WiFi logo is showing on my phone, it may decide (according to Sure) that the connection is insufficiently stable and use GPRS instead.

When I challenged the bill, the only itemisation they were willing to provide showed dates & times of downloads during my stay. One of these — upon arrival in Munich and whilst I was still in the airport on WiFi — was for 500MB of data in a single transaction. I asked for more details and was told nothing further was available. Since I don’t watch movies on my Blackberry, it’s hard to imagine what that 500MB could possibly have been, notwithstanding that in any case I had been under the impression I was using WiFi not Data Roaming.

That really surprised me — in an era when all our electronic correspondence is (in all likelihood) being monitored by the security services, and when even our internet search history is being recorded, is my telecoms provider seriously claiming that they don’t know what IPs I connected to and/or what was being downloaded? I find that incredibly difficult to believe.

What makes it even more interesting is that effectively this means that Sure can just make up my bills — there is no challenge I can apparently make to these charges: as far as they are concerned, their word is law. Yet for fixed-line telephony there have been numerous examples of customers being billed for calls that were never made, so what sanction do I have?

Sure customer service representatives were totally implacable throughout the process, first patronizing me with a little lecture about “safe roaming” and then refusing to acknowledge there was any possibility that the SIM in my phone might be the culprit.

Undeterred, I dug deeper. Over the next fifteen months I was to end up sending or receiving over 150 emails on the subject in a three-way correspondence with Blackberry and Sure. Initially, I opened a support ticket with Blackberry; that was harder than it sounds as it required the mobile phone company’s co-operation. However, once the ticket was opened I was fairly quickly able to locate a Blackberry representative in their UK office who understood enough about the technicalities to see what I was arguing and be capable of performing the necessary analysis. In the ensuing months I ran countless diagnostics on my phone, uploaded dozens of log files to Blackberry and corresponded endless with their representative, a tremendously helpful chap called Matt. This culminated in me sending my Blackberry Passport to Matt and him obtaining a totally “clean” duplicate phone & SIM. By swapping my SIM into his clean phone, and the clean SIM into my phone he was able to demonstrate conclusively that indeed as I suspected from the beginning my phone was unable to detect when it was roaming, and that the culprit was the SIM card. Eureka!

At this point (the end of August 2015) one would imagine that Sure’s customer service department would have caved in and offered to refund my roaming charges. Incorrect. Instead, they argued that the pattern of usage didn’t imply a fault with their SIM and offered a goodwill gesture representing around 15% of the total cost. I rejected this offer, pointing out some examples where in fact the pattern of data usage for a phone that thought it was at ‘home’ in Jersey would be identical to what was being seen. Eventually, they revised their offer to 30% of the total cost. Again, I rejected this offer, arguing that they had absolutely no way of ascertaining which data usage was deriving from my SIM’s behaviour and in any other regulated market it was highly likely that a regulator would agree with me and force them to refund my charges in total. In mid-November they agreed to do so… though only once I had returned the offending SIM to them (“for analysis,” they claim).

For fourteen months I felt stonewalled. Yet from the behaviour of my phone I was convinced that something was amiss and Blackberry’s technical experts appear to have agreed with me. So what kind of company just keeps on trying to fob off a customer with excuse after excuse rather than take the complaint seriously and deal with it maturely? Most bizarrely, from Sure’s shareholders’ viewpoint, is the following fact: when I raised the initial complaint, the total data roaming charges were about £2,500. In the ensuing year or so while they were arguing with me, my phone racked up another £4,000 of roaming while Data Roaming was turned off. So by stonewalling me for so long they actually almost trebled the cost of resolving my complaint. Go figure.

According to a 2014 article by the Wall Street Journal, data roaming charges are forecast to earn the mobile phone industry $42 billion by 2018. Where fees per megabyte in a user’s home jurisdiction might be as low as $0.01, overseas this can leap to $18.00 — almost 2000 times as much. No wonder there is little interest amongst mobile phone companies to delve into the matter of whether their customers’ phones actually know whether they’re roaming or not.