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A trip to Mexico, a $3,900 cell phone bill

You think your cell phone bill is bad? It's probably nothing like the $3,900 monthly bill Sarah Howe just got.

A $3,900 bill might seem impossible, but if you ever plan to use your cell phone overseas, or you give one to your traveling teen-ager, you'd better read on.

Howe's 18-year-old daughter, Hannah, spent July in Mexico attending an art class at a small village named San Miguel de Allende, about four hours outside Mexico City. Mom wanted Hannah to feel safe and connected during the trip, so she let Hannah take her T-Mobile phone.

But Howe, who lives just outside Washington D.C., was worried about the potential phone bill. Hannah had taken a similar trip to Mexico the previous year and come back with a bill of several hundred dollars. So Howe said she called T-Mobile before the trip to make sure Hannah was on the proper plan for calls and text messages from Mexico.

Two weeks into the trip, she called T-Mobile again to make sure the bill wasn't outlandish. It was too late: It was already nearly $4,000. Text messaging accounted for about $200 of the bill; the rest was for incredibly expensive conversations, billed at $1.49 per minute.

"Here's one call that's 86 minutes, for $128. Here's one that's $122, another that's $102, all on the same day," Howe said, looking over the 49-page bill.

Still, a $3,900 phone bill would have required Hannah to talk for more than 40 straight hours. Perhaps that's not unthinkable to parents of teen-agers, but Hannah has told her mother she didn't make all those calls.

Since most of them say "number unavailable" on the bill, it's impossible to track down what really happened, Howe said.

T-Mobile spokesman David Henderson confirmed that the firm had talked to Howe and was investigating the situation, but said he couldn't provide additional information, citing privacy reasons.

Howe said she was told by T-Mobile customer service representatives that she had to pay.

"One of T-Mobile reps I talked to told me he had never seen anything like it," she said.

Still, they offered no relief from the bill, even though there was "no explanation for all the incoming calls in the middle of the night billed to her phone for hundreds of dollars – with no phone number listed on the bill to track. They just said I had to pay the thousands. (It's a) nightmare."

Persistent calls to customer service, and a call to MSNBC.com, seem to have softened the firm's position. On Thursday, Howe said she had an amicable conversation with a different T-Mobile representative and they discussed an "equitable way to end all this."

Many cell phone users are finding themselves in the brave new world of borderless cell phone dialing – without borderless rates. Hannah's phone was enabled for international calling because her mom had turned on what T-Mobile calls its "World Class" feature. Calling rates vary wildly through World Class (they are explained on T-Mobile's Web site), but the standard rate for using a T-mobile phone in Mexico is $1.49 per minute – incoming or outgoing. Mexico ranks in the middle of T-Mobile's prices. Calls from Spain are 99 cents per minute, for example, which calls from New Zealand are $1.99 and calls from Russia are $4.99.

Other major providers also offer international calling rates, though coverage varies widely. Many U.S.-based cell phones are not compatible with overseas cell networks.

All international cell phone calling brings with it other expensive potential pitfalls. Some carriers charge when calls are placed to your phone, even if you don't answer it -- because the call was carried over another company's network in order to reach your handset. To be safe, you should keep your phone off while traveling unless you need it.

OTHER RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS

• Consumers should always call their cell phone companies before taking their handset on an out-of-country trip to a) see if the phone will work, and b) understand the financial consequences of using it

• Renting a cell phone at your destination might be cheaper than using your own, so consider that. Also, callers with handsets that accept SIM cards can buy local cards and save money, as long as they've unlocked their phones. Call your carrier to ask for unlock codes, or search the Internet for instructions.

•Forward your calls to a voicemail box so you can get less-essential messages using a land-line or calling card. But know that there is a difference between a "soft" forward, which happens at the phone, and a "hard" forward, which happens at the network. With a soft forward, you might be charged for a call connection. Call your carrier to implement a hard forward.

*T-Mobile offers a special plan called kidConnect that disables the phone once kids use up their minutes (though they can still call mom and dad). With that plan, there's no surprise bills. Check with your carrier for similar "capped" plans.