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I’m visiting my sister in Southside, TN. It’s a very beautiful rural scene. Pastoral fields surrounded by dense green forests. Among the rolling hills a farm house or a church steeple will appear. There is a church at nearly every country intersection: Methodist, Pentacostal, Baptist. This is Bible country.

Along the main road to my sister’s house is a country store, replete with a cast of overalled characters sitting on the porch, watching the traffic go by. The idyllic quiet life doesn’t mean that there isn’t technology. Giant plasma televisions are visible through front windows. There are satellite television systems and Playstations. There’s also cell phone service. But as I found, only for a few fortunate locals.

Verizon and AT&T are the major providers in the area. We have Sprint, so when we arrived, we found that we were roaming. After a few days, while attempting to send a text message, we started to get messages flashing on our phone that we were on ‘international roaming’. This seemed strange to us, so we contacted Sprint via chat:

Seth T.: Peter, can I have the full address of your current location? Let me check the coverage status for you.

Me: *********, Southside, TN 37171

Seth T.: Peter, your current location is out of Sprint network. It’s in off network roaming.

Me: I understand, but this is the United States. Why is my phone in  international roaming?

Seth T.: It seems you are in border area and due to this reason your phone is getting connected to the international tower.

 

Me: Do you know where Tennessee is? It’s at least 500 miles from the nearest foreign border. How is this possible?

Seth T.: I understand Peter. But since Sprint coverage is not there and it seems other providers also don’t have tower there, so the phone is getting any possible network there.

Let’s stop right there. Maximum range for a cell tower is 22 mi (about the distance to the horizon) but most towers have a range of three to five miles. For me, just outside of Nashville, to have a signal I’m hitting a tower no more than 22 miles away. This means that someone has put a pirate tower that is getting in the middle of the call to tack on an international charge to my bill. Kind of creative, but terrible.

Me: Verizon is here. Sprint is in Nashville, 30 miles. Why am I connecting to an international service? Doesn’t this seem suspicious to you?

Seth T.: Peter, there is no unknown charge or overage on your account in the unbilled usage. The international service usage shows extra charge on the bill.

Me: Then you better make it go away.

Seth T.: You are welcome. Yes. It seems it is showing some error message. You are using normal roaming services on the phone.

While I’m frustrated that this is happening, I am appreciative that Sprint is cooperating on the charges.

Me: I am getting all kinds of error messages. They pop and disappear so rapidly not even the Flash can read them. I’d like to know what they are, so I can avoid any charges that I shouldn’t have to deal with since I am in the heartland of America.

There is a Verizon tower that services this address, just for your information.

It’s true that I had been receiving messages constantly, but they flashed and disappeared so quickly that I couldn’t read them. I only saw warning about international roaming when I tried to send text messages.

Seth T.: We do have agreements with other companies that will provide service in that area. Unfortunately since it is not part of our network we are unable to guarantee your network experience.

Me: Seth T, are you telling me that Sprint is unaware that someone is running an international roaming scam in the middle of your customer service area? Please tell me that you at least care about it.

Seth T.: Peter, since we do not offer services at your location and it is reflecting as off network roaming, the phone can connect to any available network there. To avoid this, I request you to turn off the roaming in your phone.

Me: That means I have no connection with the outside world for the next week unless I accept international roaming. You’re telling me that you can’t overcome this, even though you must have a reciprocal agreement with Verizon, whose service that we get at this location. This is beyond unsatisfactory.  I am so not happy.

Agent Jean K. enters chat

Jean K.: Hi, My name is Jean, a Supervisor in the Chat department. Please give me a few minutes to review your conversation with the previous chat specialist.

Me: OK

Jean K.: I understand that you are here since Saturday.

Me: I have made calls that said they are roaming calls. It was not until I went to send SMS messages that I was informed that I am subject to INTERNATIONAL ROAMING charges. So I assume that I am paying international roam for calls and SMS messages since Saturday. Is this true?

Jean K.: Yes, its true. Your phone is correctly indicating that you are connected to International roaming coverage.

Me: How is this possible in the middle of Tennessee?

Jean K.: Although, I am also surprised that how you can get international roaming in Tennessee.

Me: Doesn’t that sound suspicious to you?

Jean K.: Yes, it does. However, we do not have our own network there so we are unable to refresh the network on your device from here.

Me: Don’t you have reciprocal agreements with Verizon?

Jean K.: Yes, we do and you should get the roaming coverage not international roaming.

Me: Yes. It’s doesn’t matter. What are the current charges on our bill for the international service for the time we’ve used so far?

Jean K.: I apologize, the roaming charges doesn’t not appear immediately on account, it takes up to 1 bill cycle to reflect the charges.

Me: What do I when they come in?

Jean K.: Peter, I understand that you were not aware that your phone is connected to International roaming, so I am adding the notes on your account that any International charge which will appear on your bill till June 17, 2013 usage should be waived. However, for future I request you to keep your phone roaming off to avoid such charges.

Me: I will turn off roaming. In the mean time, is Sprint going to report this signal hi-jack to the authorities? If I put the phone in home network only, that should be enough, correct?

Jean K.: Yes, I will forward this to appropriate department so that they can check and investigate this.

So this is the new state of the art. Set up a cell tower in a rural area and smack all the hapless passersby with international roaming charges. Criminals get more creative all the time and they never rest.