YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — One sailor racked up $3,000 in Japanese cell phone charges in one month.
Another got a monthly bill for $10,000 from his Japanese cell phone company.
And when a cell phone bill for 4.8 million yen, about $40,000, crossed Lt. Patrick LaHiff’s desk this week, the Navy Legal Service Office’s civil law department head said he got goose bumps.
Using a Japanese cell phone as a dial-up modem can leave unsuspecting servicemembers in a financial hang-up, and Yokosuka’s NLSO is working on getting the word out, LaHiff said Friday.
“This is something that people should really know about,” LaHiff said, as the above three scenarios occurred in the past two months.
Here’s how it happens:
Most Japanese companies offer a service that allows customers to plug their phones into their personal computers and dial up the Internet from anywhere.
But while phones have this capability, its use isn’t free. It also isn’t the same as accessing the Internet through the phone itself for a set rate. When the phone is plugged into the computer, customers are charged by the size of the information “packet” they are accessing, time online and connection speed — or combinations of the three.
Downloading a single, three-megabyte song can cost 5,400-yen, or $50, according to the Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Web site. One hour of use at a 100-kilobyte connection speed can cost 73,828-yen, or $620, the ministry Web site said.
The ministry puts out its own warnings — complete with phone bill horror stories — and recommendations for prevention. And if Japanese people can be caught unaware, so can American servicemembers, LaHiff warned.
“This isn’t a scam — the information is clearly stated in the cellular phone contracts. The companies aren’t doing anything wrong,” LaHiff said. “Our concern is that people aren’t too clear on how it works.”
NLSO’s Japanese Legal Advisor Kazumi Takahara said that language could be a problem as well as not fully understanding the explanations when signing up with a phone service.
Further complicating the issue is that some companies don’t send paper bills. Unless servicemembers access their statements online, they may not know what happened until the money is deducted from their account or charged to their credit card, Takahara said.
Many sailors sign up from automatic deductions due to frequent deployments, she said.
“It doesn’t take much to create a big charge almost overnight,” Takahara said.
The “Don’t plug in” message will be added to Yokosuka’s Area Orientation Brief for newcomers next week, and LaHiff is passing the word along to other bases in Japan in the name of prevention, he said.
Bottom line, “just don’t connect to the Internet through the cellular phone,” he said.
“We look at this on a case-by-case basis, and there may not be a lot we can do,” LaHiff said. “If you have this problem, come to the legal office and talk to us about it.”
Company policies on using a cell phone for Web accessNTT DoCoMo: Depending on the access number dialed, you can be charged for the amount of data received or per Web site accessed. Depending on the price plan you use, the data communication fee is about 60 yen per minute and several thousand yen per Web site.
au: Cost is about 0.15 yen per packet without any discount plans. Discount services cost 2,520 yen (about $22) a month (credits up to 10,500 yen, about $84, per month and 70 percent off what comes after) or 8,925 yen (about $75) (credits up to 47,250 yen, about $398, and 80 percent off what comes after).
SoftBank: You will be charged by the amount of data transmitted. Details of the cost can be found at: http://mb.softbank.jp/mb/en/service/data/communication /sb3g_v8/index.html
Other cell phone hang-upsCost of cancelling the service: The NTT DoCoMo staff in Yokosuka said when customers sign up for the “Ichinen” (one year) discount but break off the contract before the year is up, they will be charged a 3,150 yen cancellation fee (about $26). The discount will automatically renew if customers do not tell the company that they’d like to cancel the month it is due to expire or during the following month. “All is explained in English guidebooks” that is given to customers, a staff member said. More information can be found at: http://www.nttdocomo.co.jp/english/charge/ discount/new_ichinen/index.html.
Not being able to deduct monthly payments from credit cards and having the service canceled: Servicemembers can fall behind on paying monthly bills, especially when they are deployed, and end up having their service canceled, the NTT DoCoMo staff said. Even if someone pays monthly bills with a credit card, it may not get deducted due to some kind of credit card problem. When that happens, the company lets customers know through the mail. Many sailors returning from deployment find that their cell phone service has been cancelled. NTT DoCoMo said the service usually gets canceled after two unpaid bills.
Buying phones at Softbank: SoftBank no longer offers “free phones.” It has a system in which customers can purchase a cell phone and pay with 12 or 24 installments. The cell phone price may seem expensive as they can cost between around 30,000 to 70,000 yen (about $252 to $589), but in return customers will receive discounts on monthly bills. However, customers are responsible for paying off the installments should they terminate the service.
Not understanding bills: Makoto Koizumi, an au representative, said since the bills are only available in Japanese, they’ve had base residents come in asking for a translation. There were also problems with au bills not reaching customers living on base, which the company believes are lost in the mailing system. Koizumi also said au has had customers complain that they can’t read the bill. Koizumi says the shop has English-speaking staff that can help.
During deploymentsServicemembers should not turn off the service at Japanese mobile phone shops if they want to keep the same phone number and e-mail address. Instead, people can change their plans to the least expensive ones.
SoftBank: The customers should go in person to the shop to change the plan or have their spouse or friends change it with a power of attorney. Customers can change the plan via phone by calling 157 from their SoftBank phone then pressing 8 to get English assistance.
au: Customers should go to the shop in person or have their spouses or friends take care of it with power of attorney.
NTT DoCoMo: Servicemembers can change plans in person at the shops or over the phone by calling English customers assistance at 0120-005-250. Their spouses or friends can do so with power of attorney. Customers can turn off their service without changing the phone number up to 90 days, although they cannot keep the e-mail address.
Problems?All cell phone companies offer telephone help in English and all of them recommend calling them when you are not clear on something. Below are English customer service numbers and Web addresses:
SoftBank: call 157 from SoftBank phone or call 0088-240-157 then press 8 for English assistance. http://mb.softbank.jp/mb/en/
au: call 157 from au phone or call 0077-7-111 from a commercial phone between 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. then press zero to connect to an operator. http://www. au.kddi.com/english/index.html
NTT DoCoMo: Call 0120-005-250. http://www.nttdocomo.co.jp/english/
— Hana Kusumoto and Allison Batdorff