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Help! I’m stuck in a $6,079 international roaming charge disaster

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

International travelers beware: Taking your cell phone on vacation can lead to sky-high roaming charges if you’re not careful. This Spectrum customer wishes someone had warned him before his recent business trip to Asia. 


When newlywed Luke Elie touched down in The Maldives recently, he quickly switched on his cell phone. He hadn’t spoken to his bride in nearly 24 hours and wanted to let her know he had safely arrived. Unfortunately, in all his travel planning, Elie had failed to check the international roaming rates for the island nation.

That oversight was a mistake that would become crystal clear just hours later. That’s when Spectrum began sending a quick succession of data warnings to its customer – each one more shocking than the next. By the time the flurry of alerts finally stopped, Elie had accrued a total of $6,079 in international roaming charges.

Now, a bewildered and distraught Elie is asking Consumer Rescue for help. As the founder of a nonprofit, his mission has taken him all over the world. But having previously only traveled with a prepaid phone, he was completely in the dark about international roaming fees. 

He’s hoping we can find out if and how he racked up a $6,079 cell phone bill in just one day. 

But Spectrum says it’s no mystery. The Maldives is well known to have some of the most exorbitant roaming charges of any international destination. That information is available on Spectrum’s website and customers should review it before taking their mobile phone abroad. 

The bottom line from Spectrum is that Elie used the international roaming service and he owes the bill. 

Most would agree that it’s hard to argue with that logic. 

So, can Consumer Rescue make this Spectrum customer’s $6,079 cell phone bill go away? Let’s find out. 

Jump straight to: How not to get charged for international roaming

Traveling to the Maldives on a mission

In February, Elie and his colleagues from Coaches Team International set off on their nonprofit’s latest mission. 

“We were going there to introduce the youth to basketball,” Elie told me. “My nonprofit is funded by donors, and we travel around the world with a small team of coaches.”

After a very long day and night of traveling from his home in Texas to the Maldives, Elie finally arrived late in the evening. He switched on his phone and called home. 

A spectrum customer flies 10,000 miles to the Maldives with his cell phone.
Arriving late in the evening in The Maldives after a 10,000-mile journey, this Spectrum customer called his wife using international roaming.

Elie and his wife had a brief call before he left the airport.

“I was exhausted but happy to speak to my wife,” Elie recalled. “I’m newly married, and I missed her. I was using WhatsApp as I’ve done in the past, and I believed I was on Wifi.”

He definitely wasn’t on Wifi. The moment he switched his phone on, it connected to a local cell tower. Every minute that he spoke to his spouse, the WhatsApp system was pulling data from that cell tower at an astonishing $14 per MB. 

But Elie had no idea, since he says he had never heard of international roaming charges before. He also wasn’t familiar with his cell phone, having received the device as a gift from his father-in-law months earlier. As a result, Elie had no idea that international roaming was turned on and that the mobile phone was constantly pulling data from that cell tower.

He was about to get a swift and extremely unpleasant education about mobile devices, cell service, data and international roaming rates. 

It would be a painful lesson. 

Spectrum: You’ve reached $939 in International Roaming charges

The next morning, Elie spoke to his wife. This call was much longer, although he can’t recall exactly how much longer. But a little while later, he spoke to her again. 

Several hours after that, he decided to check his email. That’s when he discovered using his phone in the Maldives was an expensive mistake. He didn’t know exactly how expensive it would become, but the first message from Spectrum gave him a considerable jolt.  

“Dear Luke,

This is an automated alert notifying you that you’ve reached $939 in international roaming charges. You might still be accruing international roaming charges at the time this email was sent. To see your data use in near real-time [sign into your account].” [Email from Spectrum]

Confused, Elie hoped the message from Spectrum was somehow a mistake.

“The notification had tips about how to reduce international roaming charges. It said to turn on Wifi and only use the phone when connected to Wifi. To be honest until then I never had heard about international roaming charges. I always had a prepaid mobile phone. This was my first time traveling with a cell phone connected to my Spectrum account. 

I checked my phone and made sure the Wifi was on. It was, so I thought I had fixed the problem.”

Elie soon found out that he hadn’t fixed the problem. Turning on the Wifi is just the first step to preventing unwanted roaming charges. The traveler must also shut off the phone’s roaming capabilities. 

But Elie didn’t know about step two, and he soon realized his phone was still pulling data from the cell tower. 

A short while after Elie finished reading the first notification from Spectrum, another one arrived. With a growing sense of dread, he opened the email. 

The new alert from Spectrum was identical to the original, except now the tally had grown to a shocking $2,251. 

I was in a panic and didn’t know how to make it stop. I had no idea what was causing the international roaming charges to pile up so quickly like that and even after I had made sure I was connected to Wifi. 

So I called my wife.

Elie

Yikes.

Of course, using his cell phone to call his wife only triggered additional messages from Spectrum. Each email announced a new more shocking balance. 

I couldn’t believe what was happening. I thought at this rate I’ll have a $100,000 mobile bill by the end of this trip.

I felt like throwing my cell phone in the ocean!

Elie

But instead of tossing his mobile phone into the sea, Elie called his wife. Again.

Turn the cell phone service off

As a new wave of notifications from Spectrum arrived, one for over $4,000 and then another for $5,000, Elie’s wife hung up on him. She immediately called the cell service provider and had the phone’s international capabilities shut off at the home base. 

About an hour later, the final alert came. Elie had incurred $6,080 in international roaming charges since his arrival in the Maldives less than 24 hours earlier. 

$6,079 bill from Spectrum for international roaming charges
After the dust settled, this Spectrum customer had accrued a $6,079 international roaming bill.

“I was devastated and embarrassed. I couldn’t believe this had happened. My wife asked Spectrum if she could do anything about the bill, but they wouldn’t even discuss it with her. I had to wait 10 days until I got home to try to figure out something.”

Elie says a dark cloud followed him around everywhere for the next 10 days. The $6,080 bill due on April 3 weighed on him heavily. What was meant to be a fun and uplifting mission to teach children about sports had definitely not gone as planned.

“I asked Spectrum to take pity on me. They didn’t.” 

As soon as Elie returned to the United States, he attempted to negotiate the bill or to set up a payment plan. 

My hope was that they would take pity on me. I explained that I wasn’t in the Maldives for a vacation. I told them about my small nonprofit, and I even sent some photos of our work with the kids during the trip.

They [Spectrum] told me there was nothing they could do and no one higher up I can appeal to. 

Not only that, they told me there are no payment plans and the balance was due on April 3.

Elie

With that deadline looming, Elie’s sister started scrolling through the internet, looking for help for her brother. 

That’s when she found an article I had written about another Spectrum customer hit by giant international roaming charges in the Maldives.

That case had a positive ending, and it gave Elie’s sister hope that Consumer Rescue might be able to help her brother, too. She sent him the article and urged him to submit a request for assistance

“I thought it was a long shot, but I filled out the form on the Consumer Rescue site and prayed,” Elie explained.

Asking Consumer Rescue for help

When I received Elie’s request for help, he was distraught. It was less than two weeks before the unexpected $6,080 Spectrum bill was due. 

Looking for something that might explain Elie’s complete ignorance of international roaming charges, I asked him if this was his first time abroad. 

I have spent most of my life serving overseas, so sadly, this is not my first time traveling. 

But this is the first time I have ever had a phone company that automatically connected to overseas towers. Never, in 20 years doing my work has this ever happened. I have never had a need to check before because it wasn’t a possibility [with a prepaid cell phone]. 

This is a brutal introduction to international roaming charges. I just don’t know what to do. I guess I don’t have any defense here.

Of course, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Elie and his situation. However, his story is one I’ve heard many times to varying degrees. 

Consumer Rescue receives a significant number of requests for assistance from travelers who return from vacation with sky-high roaming bills. These distraught consumers all have one thing in common: they didn’t check with their cell service provider prior to taking their mobile phone abroad. 

When that happens, there is very little that a consumer advocacy team can do to negotiate a better post-vacation rate.  The individual countries set those international roaming rates, not the domestic cell service provider. 

But then, that very week, as I was mulling over what to do about Elie’s case, Spectrum made a surprising announcement to its customers regarding international roaming. 

I believed that announcement might change the outcome of Elie’s case.

Spectrum is blocking roaming capabilities for specific locations 

The notification from Spectrum announced that after April 24, the company would be blocking its customers from international roaming in the following countries. 

Spectrum will disable international roaming for its customers in countries with inflated rates.
Starting on April 24, Spectrum customers will be blocked from data roaming in these international locations, including the Maldives.

These countries are known to have some of the highest international roaming fees in the world, and so Spectrum has decided to block its customers from using data there. 

But would this rule come too late for Elie? To find out, I reached out to our executive contact at Spectrum.

Asking Spectrum about this sky-high international roaming bill

“Hi ****

…He’s been traveling around and had a pay-as-you-go phone until this year. In January, he received a new phone as a gift and became a Spectrum customer. Apparently, he never heard of roaming charges before this last trip he took, and within the first 24 hours of landing in The Maldives, he somehow accrued an over $6,000 mobile bill. He says all of these charges happened on Feb. 24-25, 2024.

I’m not sure if anything can be done for Luke; obviously, he is devastated. He wasn’t in the Maldives for a vacation; he was there on a mission for his nonprofit. 

It seems very hard to fathom that someone could accrue a $6,000 bill if they weren’t actively using the phone. He says he made a few calls to his wife that day, but he did it through WhatsApp, and he says his Wifi was on at the time. 

Would your team be able to have a closer look at this case and see if there is any chance that there was a glitch somewhere that caused this massive bill to accrue in less than 24 hours? 

Thanks, Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate”

The good news from Spectrum

Spectrum reviewed the timeline of Elie’s giant data usage in the Maldives; and we had a few additional conversations before the company made its decision. Given that Spectrum had already identified the country as a hotspot for enormous roaming charges and made the drastic decision to block its customers from using data there, the executive team chose to forgive Elie’s bill. 

A spokesperson for Spectrum told me that they believe the new policy will protect its customers from similar fiascos in the future.

“This change will protect customers from unexpected charges while traveling internationally to locations [Spectrum knows has] exorbitant data rates.”

To say that Elie was completely overwhelmed by this positive outcome is an understatement. 

Michelle!

[Spectrum] literally just called. They are removing the international roaming charges.

My wife and I are just sitting here in shock and joy. I don’t even know where to begin to thank you for all of your help and guidance. I was certainly a mess for the entire month.

Now, I feel like I can have my life back.

Thank you, Luke Elie

You’re very welcome, Luke. Rescuing consumers from seemingly impossible situations is our specialty. But please, make sure that you don’t become a repeat Consumer Rescue “customer” during your next international trip with your Spectrum cell phone!! 😜

How not to get charged for international roaming 

Most people want and expect to be able to maintain some contact with loved ones back home while abroad. However, as the Consumer Rescue help files prove, that desire can easily turn into a cell phone catastrophe if the traveler isn’t careful.

Here’s what you need to know about international roaming before you take your mobile phone on vacation.

Check with your cell service provider

Checking with your service provider before you travel abroad with your mobile phone is imperative. Unfortunately, in this case, Elie skipped this step, which ultimately led to this international roaming disaster. The information Elie needed to easily avoid this stressful situation was on the Spectrum website.

No matter which mobile service provider you use, its website has a page that provides information about international roaming. Do your research to ensure that you don’t get slammed with surprise charges during and after your trip. If you don’t understand any part of your plan’s international roaming policy, call your provider for clarification.

Quick reference: international roaming details by provider

Be careful about taking your phone near borders

When traveling to areas with multiple countries close by, be cautious about turning your phone on near the border. Recently, while exploring a remote location in Northern Finland, I received a warning from Verizon that the closest cell tower might be in the neighboring country (Russia).  I hadn’t checked if my plan included Russia so I immediately shut off my phone’s roaming ability until I could find out.

You should always check your coverage for all international destinations you’ll be visiting and those close by if your stay is near a border. This is especially true for trips to U.S. states that border Canada or Mexico. You may inadvertently connect to an international tower and incur roaming charges by surprise, even if you’ve never left the country. Turn off your phone’s roaming capabilities to avoid this type of surprise. 

Do not stream games or videos

Even with an international roaming plan, you’ll need to be aware of data limits. I recently received a plea for help from another Spectrum customer who didn’t know that allowing his child to play streaming video games on his phone would quickly eat up all his data. By the time he received the alert from Spectrum, his bill had already reached over $2,000.

Anything on your mobile phone that streams videos will use enormous amounts of data. This includes games, movies, and reels on social media. 

Making phone calls 

Making phone calls abroad can be tricky when you’re on a roaming plan. In some countries, the cost per minute to call back home can be astronomical — even on a roaming plan. To be on the safe side, you should always connect to Wifi and use a service like WhatsApp when making calls abroad. 

If you’re out and about and need to make a phone call, find a place with free Wifi and turn off your cell service before dialing the number. If there is no Wifi and you must make a call, limit your time because each minute you spend on that phone could cost you as much as $3 or more, depending on the country and your provider. Yes, that is per minute.

Put your phone on airplane mode

To avoid any possibility of a surprise international roaming charge, put your phone in airplane mode for the entire trip. If you do this, your phone will never ping a cell tower as you travel. But you’ll be able to use your phone over Wifi. 

Note: Even if you’re not actively using your phone, if you do not put it in airplane mode, you’ll incur roaming charges. That’s because your device’s apps and other systems, like your email service, constantly search for updates. Those searches use data.

Buy a pay-as-you-go phone at your destination

Another way to ensure that you won’t get slammed with giant roaming fees during your international trip is to buy a pre-paid phone at your destination. These mobile devices will have clearly defined rates and even if you get confused about what’s covered, you won’t accidentally incur surprise charges since you pay before you use the service. 

The bottom line

International roaming services have improved greatly in the past ten years — both in price and reliability. In fact, in many foreign countries, travelers can use their mobile phones in virtually the same way they use the device at home, and at a low cost.

However, there are still countries and situations (like cruising) where taking your mobile phone along can end in a disastrous outcome, as we’ve seen today. 

In some cases, those fees could even cost more than the trip itself, creating vacation memories no one wants. But if you follow the tips above, you’ll significantly reduce the chances of coming home from your next international adventure with a shocking roaming charge of your own. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.