So a while back I decided to buy my daughter a cellphone. She’s 20, and we figured that it’d be a great way for us all to stay in touch. Except before we did that, I wanted to make sure that she couldn’t accidentally run up a huge bill. After all, I’m paying the freight on this – so I didn’t want her to be able to accidentally purchase things she shouldn’t on my credit card, or go over her 300MB data-plan limit.
Now, you might be thinking… why not just tell her to be careful?
Well, we tried that. (Sorry Des – love you hon, but I need to share this for the story). My daughter was a bit naïve when we got her a phone the first time around, and would go over her text message limits (3,000 a month was not uncommon), and she’d also phone people. Random people. People she met over the internet.
People in Greece.
$4,500 of unexpected phone bills later, and eventually we shut it off. But that was then. Right now, she’s starting a job, striking out on her own, and trying to get things rolling as a bona fide adult in this world. It’s awesome – we’re proud of her.
So we struck a deal, and decided to swap a phone with 300MB of data per month, unlimited text messages, and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling in return for babysitting twice a month. It’s a pretty good deal, and we both get something we need. She gets communication with the world, and we get some “being adults” time that isn’t also “being parents” time.
I learned my lesson last time, so before I decided to go ahead with this, I wanted to make sure that I could prevent random acts of extreme billing from happening again. So I went to my local AT&T store, and asked them about it. Could I prevent her from making purchases on my account? Yes! Could I prevent her from going over the 300MB data limit on the Smartphone data plan we’d need to set up? Yes! Just sign up for Smart Limits. No problem!
Even better, because I was setting up a new line and getting a new phone for myself, I could extend my contract for 2 years for the new phone, and put her on the new line with my old phone, and she wouldn’t have a contract. So if necessary, I could just go ahead and kill the account with the flick of a finger. No early termination fee. No nothing.
I was happy. This sounded like a good plan – protects her from my wrath (what little there is takes a long time to boil up), and protects me from getting large phone bills. Win win! And if she ever wanted to have total freedom, we could transfer the account over and put it in her name, and she’s be free as a bird. Perfection!
So I asked them to set it up. They did. I then logged in later, and set the limits to 298MB for her data plan, to make sure she couldn’t go over. I expected her to go over for the first (partial) billing cycle, and AT&T warned me that Smart Limits doesn’t properly monitor things until it hits a billing cycle boundary. That should have been my first red flag, but I figured, hey, it’s software. And it’s probably still a huge mainframe doing the billing. Batch processed. So sure, it might go over a little. I can understand that.
Really, it should have been my first red flag.
Things Start Going Wrong…
Things seemed to be fine for a little while, and then my daughter managed to smash her phone’s screen in a car door. I ordered a replacement one online so I could fix it and swap it out. Meanwhile, at work one day, I got a few random phone calls from an unknown number. I looked it up online – it was from a RadioShack store. Wrong number, I assumed.
It wasn’t a wrong number. You see, somehow, my daughter had bought a new Android phone to replace the Windows Phone she accidentally destroyed. Well, kind of bought it. She used the upgrade from my line, and extended her contract date for 2 years.
This should be impossible.
You see, AT&T are supposed to talk to the billing account holder (me) before doing that kind of thing. It’s supposed to require the last four digits of my social security number as well. And! I’m the contract owner. I’m supposed to be the one on the hook for the contract, but apparently AT&T consider my daughter to hold power of attorney for me, and I guess they just forgot that whole security check thing. After all, a sale’s a sale, right?
I let it slide. She was being responsible, and trying to fix the problem. But then other problems started to happen.
Galloping Overage Charges
After she got the new phone, I got an overage warning, and then was charged $20. I figured “damn, I guess it’s that middle-of-the-billing cycle” issue again, and said “fair enough” and wrote it off. It then happened again a week later. This should have been a red flag, but I ignored it.
And then… the next month… nearing the end of the billing cycle… it happened again.
I called AT&T. The customer support guy (who frankly sounded like he was stoned out of his gourd – nothing against stoners, but hey, I’m trying to get some work done here) on the end of the line took a look. He couldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work. In fact, he logged into the Smart Limits system and poked it from 298MB to 300MB, in the hope that it would stick. And then he removed the last overage charge for me.
And then, today (a few weeks later), I got a text message from AT&T telling me that overages were being applied again.
At this point, it was time to go speak to someone in person, so I made my way over to the nearest AT&T store.
Smart Limits Don’t Work On Smartphones
If you’ve bought a phone in the last 5 years, it’s probably a Smartphone. iPhone, Android, Symbian, Windows Phone – they’re all Smartphones. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to find a phone in an AT&T store which isn’t a Smartphone today, unless you’re going for a pre-paid phone. When I walked into the store, that’s pretty much all I saw. Racks and racks of Smartphones. I played with them while I waited for 15 minutes to be seen.
I talked to a nice and friendly customer service guy (not the person who set this all up for me originally back in March), and he looked into it for me. He went and talked to the manager. “That’s weird, and it looks like you’ve got it all set up correctly for that line. Do you only need the Smart Limits plan to stop purchases and cut off the data plan when it runs out? Not to block numbers or limit calling hours or anything like that? If so, we can do that for you without the Smart Limits plan. Let me call the customer services guys. I might need some info from you, but we should be able to get you all set and remove the overage charges”.
Great, I can handle that, I thought. A bit inconvenient, but it’ll be all wrapped up now.
He got off the phone.
“They’re telling me that you can’t actually limit the data plan using Smart Limits, and there’s no way to shut it off at 300MB; it’ll keep going over. I’m sorry. I can remove the overage for you, but they’re telling me that as it’s a Smartphone, Smartphones require cellular data plans at all times so that they can receive updates.”
At this point, I got frustrated.
“I’m sorry man, but the people you talked to don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I’ve got a Smartphone. I work at Microsoft, occasionally with the Windows Phone team. That’s totally wrong. It might turn into a bit of a doorstop, but you can still make calls and send texts. For everything else you can connect over Wi-Fi. If we can’t set limits on this, then how about we switch her phone over to the data plan I’ve got. It’s a grandfathered-in unlimited plan. I realize you might not be able to do that.”
He wasn’t able to do that. Their system does explicitly lock them from doing it, even if it would make me very happy and resolve this whole situation at a wave of the hand – or at least at the clack of a few keys. So we were back to finding a way to prevent the overages.
He called the manager over. The manager was surprised at the AT&T HQ response as well. He was pretty damn certain that there was a way to cork the data feed once you ran out of allowance.
The first guy said that he’d call them back. If he got another guy, he’d try to get a different answer.
He got a different person. Same answer. Smart Limits Data Limits don’t actually limit data, and we can’t turn it off if you go over the allowance.
At this point, I’m starting to worry. Something is rotten in Denmark.
He tries to get the Smart Limits charges removed given that as far as he can tell, I’ve been mislead. But he can’t. I thank him for his time and his assistance (he was trying his damnedest to get me help), he gives me a card, and holds the door open for me as I leave the store.
Meanwhile, words like “class action lawsuit” are brewing like storm clouds in my head, and I’m thinking about writing blog posts to expose the situation being as ridiculous as it was. So here we are now.
The Fine Print
So did they mislead me? It depends on which web page you read, how deeply you dig in, and whether completely not correctly training and informing both your Customer Service phone guys and retail guys counts as misleading. Certainly, I don’t think that anyone I talked to directly tried to pull one over on me… but at the corporate level? I’m not so sure.
When I originally looked into Smart Limits, this is the page that I saw, and it matched what the guys in the store told me – remember; I have nothing against the guys in the store, they’re good guys.
Recommended for: Parents
Need to get a handle on your family's wireless usage? AT&T offers a variety of services to help you manage mobile phone usage with purchase blockers, content filters, time restrictions, and much more. Controls not available on all mobile devices.
Wireless Parental Controls Parental Controls at a Glance
Purchase Blocker Free*
Content Filter Free*
AT&T Smart Limits for WirelessSM** $4.99/mo
To set up free controls, call Customer Care at 888-333-6651 or dial 611 from your wireless device. Learn more and sign up**
Block AT&T direct bill purchases: Prevent premium content purchases (ringtones, games, etc) that are direct-billed to your AT&T account . Blocks all purchases.
Set monthly purchase allowance. Go to att.com/db to manage your premium content purchase activity
Block harassing calls & texts: Block unwanted calls and texts by specifying up to '30' blocked numbers plus block calls to 411
Limit text/IM messages: Set monthly limit for text and instant messages. Block spam and take control of your wireless device
Set Time Restrictions: Set time of day restrictions for phone use Available on basic and messaging phones only:
Filter content: Restrict access to content inappropriate for younger viewers ***
Limit Data Usage: Set monthly limits for web browsing/data usage
* There is no additional monthly charge to use Purchase Blocker or Content Filters. Standard data usage rates may apply when setting these controls through a device. Turning Purchase Blocker on will cancel any existing subscriptions you have as well as prevent future one-time and subscription purchases. ** AT&T Smart Limits for Wireless does not provide the ability to set a specific monthly limit for minutes. All incoming calls are allowed at all times except from numbers you designate as blocked. Some Smart Limits features do not work on certain phones and services. Go to www.att.com/wirelesssmartlimitsterms to view AT&T Smart Limits for Wireless Terms. ***Content Filter does not work when in Wi-Fi mode. A compatible handset is required. When accessing Internet through devices with MEdiaSM Net or att.net, Content Filter restricts access to mobile websites (like chat and dating sites) with mature content It also shuts off access to the broader mobile web via the search function. Turning Content Filter "On" will also restrict access to content that could be viewed and/or purchased from the device. It may take up to 90 minutes for the controls to take effect. Content Filter is not compatible with most Smartphones. Please note Smartphones require a Smartphone data plan. You will still be required to pay for a Smartphone data plan even if you use Content Filter to block the device from accessing the Internet and application storefronts. Check your device storefront for other available parental control features and/or apps. No filtering is 100% accurate and AT&T does not guarantee filtering accuracy.
But now let’s take a look at the fine print.
AT&T Smart Limits for Wireless may overcount or undercount your actual usage. As a result, you may incur overage charges despite having set Text Messaging Limits, Web Browsing Limits or Purchase Limits, or you may be prevented from using some minutes, messages or data usage (KB/MBs) included in your plan.
Smart Limits can be used to limit/restrict data usage on basic and messaging devices only and only on individual lines subscribed to the service. Smart Limits does not work for controlling data usage for a collective group of devices or users (e.g., Mobile Share) and does not work for blocking, restricting or filtering data usage on smartphones, iPads, or Tablets, or while user is in Wi-Fi mode.
For completeness, here’s what it shows on the Smart Limits web page when you have it set up.
Bear in mind that they know the type of phone that this line is connected to. So they could show a warning here and indicate that it doesn’t matter what I try, it won’t actually work. But of course, they don’t.
But! They do have a link. So let’s follow it. Here’s what they have under the “Note: Some services are incompatible with Browsing Limits” link…
• Does Smart Limits for Wireless work for restricting all web browsing / data usage?
We’re sorry, but Browsing Limits and Time of Day Restrictions will not block or restrict data usage through non-Media™ Net internet browsers. Certain data-centric devices such as BlackBerry® devices offer non-Media Net browsers. In addition, Browsing Limits will not block or restrict a user’s data usage if the user is also subscribed to DataConnect, LaptopConnect, Tethering (connecting a wireless device to a laptop) or Blackberry services, while the user is in Wi-Fi mode, or while the user is using iPhone 3.0 software or later.
So, in short, for pretty much nearly every phone they sell in their store today, it’s completely and totally useless. If you give your kid a phone from 2003, however, it might just work.
Why I’m Annoyed
What, you mean other than the blatant misrepresentation and lies?
Up until August 15th 2010, banks were allowed to do something sneaky. They would not let you set a block on making an overdraft if you were paying with plastic. Which meant that if you spent too much money, and weren’t keeping regular track of your balance, you’d flip into overdraft mode and incur hefty fees and penalties – something that the banks loved. It was a real money spinner for them.
Some banks would even charge you a fee for every transaction that you were in the red after that, and would use a 2-3 day processing period to rearrange transactions, so that the larger ones would be applied first – rather than in the order that they were made. This was great! Because say you had a large bill go through at the end of the month – maybe it was your rent check – a little earlier than expected. But you’ve been buying groceries and sundries over that last couple of days too. Well, the rent check would be applied first, pushing your account into the red. Then all of the other charges would come in , and you’d be fined for each one.
This is, as you can imagine, a great little money earner. And in August 2010, the US Government finally stepped in and said “er… what?!” and stopped them from doing it. Sure, you can still have an overdraft on your account, but now it’s an opt-in thing – if you don’t opt-in, all of the transactions that would push you into overdraft land get blocked.
Which makes you wonder… if they can implement this on the turn of a dime, so that at the point-of-sale those transactions would be blocked if your balance would go negative, how come they were waiting 2-3 days to apply transactions in the first place? Oh yes. It was a real money-spinner for them… that’s the only reason transactions were being held up at all.
Still, they can’t use that trick any more. In response, shortly afterwards, the banks added fees for debit card accounts, and so on and so forth, in an attempt to claw that profit back again. A lot of people revolted, closed their accounts, and opened one with a credit union. I can highly recommend the credit union approach; they seem a lot less sneaky – so far.
AT&T Could Fix This Problem… If They Didn’t WANT You To Go Over
There is absolutely no technical reason whatsoever that AT&T can’t shut off your data-usage once it goes past the end of your plan. It’s a business reason. AT&T want you to go over the end of your plan so that you incur large overage fees. That IS their business model.
As I said earlier, it’s a complete lie that Smartphones need to have a 24/7 data plan to “receive updates”. Trust me on this one; I’m a software engineer. Does it become kind of a doorstop? Yes, kind-of. It turns back into a regular phone – unless you log in over Wi-Fi, which a lot of people do. (I do it whenever I travel internationally – I just turn off my cellular data, rather than incurring extremely exorbitant international roaming data charges). You can still send text messages. You can still receive phone calls. You can’t surf the web, or post to Facebook – but you’ve still got a copy of your phone book on the system.
AT&T will not help you protect your wallet if you buy your child a phone – that isn’t their business model either.
Here’s your key takeaways from all of this:
- AT&T will not stop your child from using phone upgrades all by themselves. They’re supposed to verify with the billing account holder, and that also requires providing the last 4 digits of your social security number. Except my daughter was able to get a brand new phone, complete with 2 more years of contractattached to the line. This is ridiculous. AT&T, it appears, has never heard of identity theft.
- There is no way to stop from going over the limits on a data plan on the AT&T service. Sorry, but if you use more data, expect to get charged $20. And try to smile while they do it.
- AT&T Smart Limits do not work on the majority of phones that AT&T sell. Their retail store guys don’t know this – and it’s not their fault. There’s a reasonable expectation that if they sell a service to limit phone use, it would actually limit phone use. Because anything else is ridiculous.
- AT&T want you to go over your data plan, because they can charge you lots of fees
- There is no technical reason why a smartphone needs to be connected to cellular data at all times. They function great with Wi-Fi if you run out of data allowance.
- There is no technical reason why AT&T couldn’t just shut off your cellular data plan when it runs out, and let you send a text message to buy another chunk of allowance. That would be opt-in, and fair.In short, don’t buy a phone for your child if you’re with AT&T. Because you’re just asking for trouble.This is the same trick that the banks were trying. We stopped them. We can stop AT&T from doing this too.Please share this link with your friends on Facebook and Twitter. It would be great if we could get them to stop playing shenanigans like this. And the opt-in overage system still allows them their business model – it just makes it fairer, like we did with the banks.
Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.
The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).