Summer travellers: Your cell phone could be a financial hand grenade!

If you travel overseas this summer, you may board the plane carrying a financial hand grenade in your pocket – your cell phone.

Airport security will not detect its explosive power. But you will, when you get home and see your mobile phone bill.

On May 2, I flew from Moscow to New York for 5-week home leave/vacation. That ticket costs about $900. When I got back, I found that my monthly Moscow mobile phone bill was not the usual $100.

For May, it was $1,824. That is the cost of two, round trip air tickets to New York.

In June, my Moscow bill was back down to 2,484 rubles – or $80.

Before flying to New York, I researched the U.S. roaming charges for my mobile provider, Moscow-based Beeline. It is 3 rubles or 10 cents a minute. Indeed on arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport, I received the standard SMS Beeline welcoming me to roaming.

No, I did not talk on the phone for 18,240 minutes. That would have been 304 hours, or almost two weeks, nonstop. In fact, phone service, providentially, shut down May 9, after only one week in the United States.

Beeline’s little welcome-to-roaming SMS did not warn me about data roaming charges. As I slept in New York, as I drove across Pennsylvania, as I attended my oldest son’s college graduation in Ohio, my Moscow mobile was silently whirring in my pocket, checking email accounts and updating software.

I am not alone in getting fleeced.

Paul Collison, a hedge fund manager based in Moscow, told me similar horror stories with his Beeline bills. He made several 4-day trips to London, where his mobile phone quietly whirred away in his pocket, running up data roaming charges of $1,000 a trip.

Beeline’s website does not offer straight talk about what data roaming charges really are. After two colleagues and I explored the site, none of us could say with any certainty what the rates are. A quick internet survey found fairly reasonable – and clearly published rates – for data roaming with U.S. and U.K.-based providers.

The data roaming scam is not limited to Russia.

Dan Schearf, my VOA colleague in Bangkok, tells me of traveling to Cambodia for a five day reporting trip and racking up $1,000 in data roaming charges on his Thai mobile.

Complaints by my office yielded no concession from Beeline on the bill.

From their point of view, why should they?
Until consumer legislation catches up with them, data roaming is a gold mine. It is far more lucrative than collecting zillions of one ruble SMS charges.

I spent 90 minutes at the Beeline office at Park Kulturi. The tightlipped clerk did let slip one nugget of information. She asked if I had an i-Phone. (Aha! I thought, am I the fifth i-Phone international traveler of the day?)

With an i-Phone, it is up to the user to manually turn off data roaming. You go through a 4-step digital obstacle course – Settings, General, Network and Data Roaming.

Presumably, consumer legislation will eventually shut down this enormously profitable scam. Until then, the choices when traveling are: shut off data roaming, or buy and use a local prepaid SIM card.

My visit to Beeline yielded a 2-week restoration of mobile phone service, the promise of an investigation, and a letter. The letter never came, and service was cut off again. Friends suggested that I walk away from the bill and get a new mobile number.

Instead, I decided to pay. That turned into another surreal experience. American Express refused to make any size payment to Beeline, Russia’s second largest telecom company. Visa would only cover half the charge. After I went to Citibank to get $500 in cash from a nearby Citibank ATM, Citibank immediately reduced my cash withdrawal limit from $2,000 to $200.

Amex informed me gravely: “There is a high fraud alert over Russia.” So, after paying a bill I consider to be fraudulent, I had to make skype calls to Amex, to Visa, and to Citibank to assure them that there had been no fraudulent usage of my cards.

It could be the makings of an absurdist play.

But this costly cellphone saga is too much part of the reality of post-Soviet Russia’s consumer beware culture.


(Photo: Jakub Krechowicz/



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.