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Counting the cost of having your phone stolen abroad

When Joanne McConville’s KT iPhone was stolen while on loan to a friend in Spain, she did what any bill payer would do and contacted KT to have her account suspended.

There was just one problem: It was the weekend and KT’s English helpline only operates during office hours from Monday-Friday.

When she finally got through, she wasn’t told she faced a phone bill totaling millions of won.

“I tried to call KT on three different (Korean-language) numbers that I found on the Web and via friends who have iPhones,” said Joanne.

“I could not get through to an operator on any of the lines. I tried for four hours. I also could not get in touch with my Korean friend who co-signed the contract.”

Exasperated, she eventually gave up and decided call the English line when it opened the following Monday.

“They didn’t mention anything about any phone calls being made. They put the suspension on my phone … and then I got a messaging saying I had to pay 326,000 won. I didn’t even really know what I was paying for but I paid and then I got a text message (on another phone) saying I had got a new phone,” said Joanne.

Everything seemed to have been resolved without incident. But three weeks later Joanne got a nasty surprise with the arrival of her phone bill.

“My phone (had been) getting used and the thief racked up a bill of almost 2 million won.”

In between the time the phone was stolen Friday and reported missing to KT on Monday, the thief had made 1.9 million won worth of calls to Britain, Algeria, Belgium and Morocco. But despite the highly unusual call activity ― her previous phone bill had been for just over 50,000 won ― KT refused to waive the charges.

According to McConnville, KT refused to give her an adequate explanation as to why her account was not suspended due to suspicious activity as many credit card companies do, nor why KT does not provide a round-the-clock cancellation service for foreign customers.

“I just want KT to take responsibility for their part in this. There was no customer service, nor customer protection nor a facility for foreigners to get through to them when something terrible happened. If they don’t want to provide a 24-hour helpline for foreigners they could at least give instructions of what numbers to press to get through to an operator or offer an automated system in an emergency.”

A spokeswoman for KT told The Korea Herald the company does monitor for unusual roaming usage on its accounts ― including charges of more than 100,000 won and 20 or more roaming calls in 24 hours ― and contacts customers accordingly.

KT said that it cannot suspend an account without a customer’s permission ― except in the case of data roaming exceeding 100,000 won ― and could not have contacted Joanne as her phone was stolen. The telecom could not confirm whether any effort was made to contact Joanne, but said that it would normally contact an alternate number or email address if it had been provided. Joanne’s contract, seen by The Korea Herald, included the contact details of her Korean co-signer, who Joanne said was never contacted by KT.

As for its service hours for foreign users, KT said it was not planning to extend its English-language line and that foreigners who lose their phone or have it stolen should get a Korean friend to contact the 24/7 Korean line.

Legally, phone companies are only responsible for charges incurred after a phone is reported missing, according to the Korea Communications Commission. In cases such as Joanne’s where there is no liability, the KCC can only mediate between the customer and the phone company to try and find a solution acceptable to both sides.

“We cannot hold this situation to KT. However, most of these cases can be treated by the phone company in a helpful manner. This no clear strict rule in this case, because KT did not know and was not to blame,” a spokesman for the body said.

The spokesman advised customers who find themselves in a situation similar to Joanne’s to post their story on the KCC website and that of the phone operator to bring attention to their plight.

When it comes to policies on lost or stolen phones, there are some differences between the three Korean cell phone operators.

LG Uplus told The Korea Herald that charges racked up while a phone is stolen can be negotiated on a case by case basis once the customer can provide evidence of the theft. Like KT, LG Uplus said it contacts users who incur charges over 100,000 won.

LG said its foreigner helpline, which provides a service in Chinese, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian, as well as English, operates from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday.

The telecom also allows customers to set one of a number of prearranged credit limits for their accounts if they chose.

SKT said that it only takes responsibility for charges once a phone is reported stolen to the company. The country’s biggest cellphone operator informs users if monthly phone charges exceed 500,000 won. Its foreign language line, which caters for English, Japanese and Chinese, operates on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. SKT does not have a set bill limit, though customers can choose one through certain call plans, and there is a 100,000 won cap on data roaming.

Both LG Uplus and SKT require a declaration from the customer for a Korean to suspend their account on their behalf, with SKT insisting on the national ID cards of both the caller and the foreign customer.

In the meantime, Joanne has resigned herself her to paying her bill to spare the credit-worthiness of her Korean co-signer, even though she feels her phone company should do more for its foreign customers. She warned other expats to be aware of the situation she found herself in.

“This is going to happen to another foreigner. I would hate for anybody to have to go though this,” she said.

By John Power and Kang Yoon-seung (john.power@heraldcorp.com)
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