How AT&T charged me up to $7.50 per second ($450/minute) and says it’s completely normal

I am traveling to the US often enough that it pays off to have a local phone number. But I’m not there often enough to have a monthly subscription. So AT&T’s prepaid (“pay as you go”) offering seemed like a reasonable choice. Indeed it was until last December. The deal is as follows: you pay $2/day for phone service and $1/100 MiB data service.

I’m using a Galaxy Note phone and get 4G LTE connection – so these 100 MB could be gone in less than 30 seconds with AT&T’s fast (~30 MBit/s) network. Indeed, I saw such speeds in practice – kudos to the operator!

This was no big deal last year because after the 100 MiB data package was gone, the network simply disconnected and asked me to purchase another one. In fact, this is written in AT&T’s terms and conditions as “A Data Add-On is available for an additional charge for all device types. Once Data Add-On is depleted, basic/messaging phone users will automatically revert to pay-per-use data. To continue using data on a smartphone, customer must purchase another Data Add-On or be restricted to Wi-Fi.”.

But unfortunately, in December 2019, somehow that mode changed and instead of disconnecting me, the service automatically switched to the pay-per-use mode, which charges 1 cent per 5 kiB. And of course, the text message that tells you that your data is depleted arrives only hours after the fact, actually, about half the time it doesn’t arrive at all. So without knowing, I suddenly paid $7.50 per second (!!) if you use data and your connection is good: 30 Mbit/s = 3.75 MiB/s = 3,750 kiB/s = 750 * 5 kiB/s = $7.50 per second. That is up to $450 per minute! Fortunately, I did not enable AutoPay of my prepaid account ;-).

Of course, this is unworkable in practice. The first time this happened, it sucked my prepaid account from $55 down to zero in seconds. I called and complained about it and got a $30 refund but the problem was not fixed. I went to AT&T stores twice and they were somewhat helpful but the software quality of their internal system was so bad that it was constantly loosing the browser session (the system uses some web-based API). All they found was a cryptic entry “OCSPPTK” on December 5th – about the time when the issues started. But nobody knew that that meant. So they advised me to call support.

Then, I lived with the danger – but it again triggered yesterday (some app on my phone went crazy and updated itself) and boom – $30 gone, again down to zero. I called and discussed the issue for about one hour and was eventually told that I don’t know what I’m talking about and this is perfectly normal. The person was actually quoting the text above to me but we did not agree on the interpretation (so that it should turn off service for a smart phone).

Unfortunately, I have to say that the customer support is not impressive – they talk to me as if I’m somewhat of a child who does not understand what data means (“you should not use instagram” etc. – I have never used it …). I told them that I’m teaching computer science at one of the world’s highest ranked departments but to no avail. The supervisor was most annoying in that he didn’t even try to understand my problem but immediately went into script mode telling me how I’m wrong. When I directly asked him whether he wanted to actually help me or just explain me how charging $7.50 per second is normal business practice, he was quite clear that his goal was the latter. So not “customer support” but “customer repel” – if they would have just hung up, then it would have been much less frustrating. For the record, this person’s identifier was qpzvjw8.

I assume this is just a bug in my account and may be simple to fix. Unfortunately, the interface that AT&T provides makes it impossible to work with.

My goal was to get at least parts of the $55 I lost over this back and, more importantly, fix my account to disconnect once the 100 MiB are depleted, like I believe the terms and conditions above imply. This would have been quite simple for them but well, my problem is still no solved and I will have to file a complaine with the FCC.