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Verizon offers overage alerts, spokesperson says. Very quietly.

Consumer Reports News: October 19, 2010 11:25 AM

Verizon Wireless alerts customers when they are at or over the monthly allowances in their plan and liable to rack up hefty overage charges (and perhaps experience cell phone bill shock, as we reported last week). So says a company spokesperson. But I couldn't find information about the alerts on the Verizon Wireless Web site, and my wife and I didn't get any alert before exceeding our plan's allotment of minutes by some 50 percent one month.

In an e-mail exchange last week, following the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to require such notification, Verizon's Nancy Stark informed me that the company sends alerts as an "operational practice… We review all consumer accounts once a month on/around the 20th bill cycle day and send the following free text if they have exceeded or are trending to exceed their allowance: 'You are on track to incur overage charges for Minutes, Data, or Messages. Acct Owner: call 866-xxx-xxxx or dial #MIN & # DATA to check usage.'"

Customers then have the option of retroactively switching to a higher-minute account, Stark wrote, without having to extend their contract. They can then switch back down when their spike usage ends. However, that system didn't work for me last February, when my wife and I went 637 minutes over our 1,400-minute monthly allotment last February without hearing from Verizon. Thanks to the carrier's 40-cents-per-minute charge for extra minutes over your plan's allotment, those extra calls added a whopping $255 to my bill, which is normally $120. (Verizon did knock $175, or 68 percent, off that amount, after I called and complained.)

A timing glitch might explain my failure to receive an alert, says Stark. My overages started toting up on the primary line on the 27th day of my billing cycle, which is later in the cycle than the time that Verizon says it scans bills for impending overages. "It's conceivable that the system wouldn't catch it and wouldn't send an alert if your spike in usage happened after the 20th day of the billing cycle," says Stark. We think Verizon should constantly monitor for overages in real time, as other carriers do—at least, some smaller ones (more on that in a later post). But Stark says that would be prohibitively pricey. "We would have to run every single customer account every day through a program. It's very costly to do," says Stark.

We'd also encourage the company to better inform its customers—and, apparently, its employees, too—about this program. Stark says that Verizon has informed the FCC about its alerts. But when I searched the Verizon Web site for "overage alerts," all I found was a mention of the "free" alerts that come with Verizon's "usage controls" feature, which costs $4.99 a month or $60 a year. And when I dropped in at my local Verizon store and asked if I could get overage alerts, a salesman said the company provided alerts with Verizon's wireless broadband service for PCs, but not for Verizon cell-phone voice, text, or data.

For tips on how to avoid cell phone bill overages, see our Consumer Reports Online story, "5 ways to avoid cell-phone 'bill shock'."

And we'd like to hear from Verizon customers who have incurred overage charges: Did you recieve an overage alert?

—Jeff Blyskal

Carol Mangis

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