Jeffrey Labovitz has traveled to every war-torn area in the world since he began working with a United Nations-affiliated humanitarian group.
He’s fought to find water for drought-stricken regions in Africa. He’s battled to save people from ethnic cleansing campaigns in Eastern Europe. He’s fought East African warlords from kidnapping and murdering members of rival tribes.
Six months ago Labovitz waged another kind of fight, a fight to reduce what he calls “usurious” cell phone roaming fees that his cell phone company and their roaming service provider charged him while on vacation to his permanent home of San Diego.
One charge occurred while Labovitz and his family were visiting his childhood friend in Linda Vista. During the visit, Labovitz’ seven-year-old son snuck off with Labovitz’ cell phone.
“My son had grabbed the phone without me knowing and he streamed Dan TDM, kids know this gamer, he’s got blue hair,” Labovitz told NBC 7 Responds from his hotel room in the Slovakian city of Bratislava.
“He watched 71-seconds of this video and those 71 seconds cost over $9,000. That’s the equivalent of $110 per second.”
During his annual trip to San Diego, Labovitz says he used a mapping app on his phone for directions and a few other phone apps. He let his son watch a show on YouTube for just under four minutes.
Labovitz opened his cell phone bill when he returned to his home in Eastern Africa.
“I got back to Nairobi and suddenly I have this massive bill of $14,000. We didn’t use the phone much at all so I was in total disbelief. I assumed there was some sort of mistake.”
But it wasn’t a mistake.
Labovtiz says he called his provider Safaricom. He said they told him it was T-Mobile’s charges and not theirs. Labovitz called T-Mobile. He said they told him it was Safaricom’s responsibility.
Labovitz considers the charges “exploitive and usurious.”
“Where I’m from people earn less than $5 a day,” he said. “If you have a student on scholarship they would never be able to pay it off for the rest of their lives.”
Getting nowhere with the companies, Labovitz sent an email to NBC 7 Responds for help.
“T-Mobile said no, and that’s when I contacted Consumer Bob because I had absolutely no recourse,” Labovitz said.
Safaricom responded by forgiving what they said was their share of the roaming fees, just under $4,000.
T-Mobile, however, said it was up to Safaricom to address the balance, not them.
Emails between Labovitz, Safaricom, and T-Mobile, obtained by NBC 7 Responds, show that Safaricom and T-Mobile were going back and forth over which party was responsible for the high-roaming fees.
“From my point of view, you as Safaricom can waive it to the customer, but what is the rationale from T-Mobile to not bill Safaricom?” Wrote T-Mobile representative to Labovitz and a worker from Safaricom.
T-Mobile declined to provide a formal statement for the story. NBC 7 Responds asked for an explanation as to why the roaming fees with Safaricom customers are so high. A spokesperson for the company said T-Mobile could not comment on specific contracts.
Labovitz says he has paid the remaining $9,845 for the roaming fees left after Safaricom refunded a portion of the bill.
He is thankful the bill wasn’t more than it was.
“I can’t even think what would happen if my son got on my phone for a half-hour.”