I dread ‘bill shock’ stories more than calls from my bank manager, but this one reported in Hong Kong’s, South China Morning Post is so topical I just had to write about it.

As previously mentioned, mobile operators in Asia, keen to capitalize on roaming customers addicted to internet access via conducive data plans at home are being attracted to ‘Capped Roaming Data Plans’ offered in the countries they are visiting.

Anthony Lam Yue-yeung, a host for online radio station Hong Kong People Reporter, landed in Bangkok last September heading to the resort island of Koh Samui for what he expected to be a pleasant three-day holiday. As you do, he turned on his iPhone after landing and was deluged with the usual flood of welcome messages.

Lam selected an unlimited data roaming service offered by his provider, 3 Hong Kong, at a rate of HK$138 (US$18) per 24 hours, confirmed and activated it, and proceeded to browse the internet from his phone as he usually does.

You can imagine his surprise when a month later he received a bill which included included HK$29,026 (US$3,740) for “additional roaming charges” during the three days he had spent on the island.

What Lam had apparently not noticed was that the discount applied only to True Move, a partner network of 3 Hong Kong, and his phone, being set to ‘Automatic’ had connected to different networks depending on his location. It seems that those ‘other’ networks charged him full rate per Kb (plus roaming loading).

He and 3 Hong Kong are now in a deadlock, with him refusing to pay and the company demanding that he do so, and cutting off his service every few days to force him to pay.

But who is at fault in this case? 3 Hong Kong insists the bill is justified because the welcome SMS clearly states that customer can enjoy data roaming service at a daily charge while roaming on True Move only. However, it apparently did not inform the hapless Lam how to ensure that his phone stayed connected to True Move by selecting the ‘Manual’ network option.

Shouldn’t every mobile phone subscriber, Lam included, know how to ensure their phone connects only to a nominated network? Not likely!

So what is the solution for an issue that will only get worse over time. Well, realtime charging with warnings being delivered at preset thresholds, as the European regulator has introduced, would be a good starting point. If mobile operators really care about their customers and wish to prevent ‘bill shock’ then maybe they should take the lead in this respect. The capped roaming plans are a brilliant idea but unless clearly understood by the subscriber they can become a marketing and accounting nightmare.

When stories like this hit the headlines readers tend to side with the ‘victim’ because if they were in his shoes the same could easily happen to them and they relate to him. They would expect the home operator to warn them if their spending went ‘out of the park’. They may even get the feeling that operators are setting these traps to earn extra revenue at their expense. It makes no difference that the billing is accurate, it is simply perceived as grossly unfair.

Surely, over three days any sensible operation would have picked up the gross anomaly in usage and charges against the account, and why didn’t their fraud alarm bells ring. If a customer is to select a capped plan, as Lam did, and then charges start coming through that are not associated with that plan, wouldn’t that be a good reason to inform the customer that they may have a problem and help them change the settings.

Proactive vs reactive customer care. I’ve heard of it but I wonder if anybody actually  does it.