Breaking up 3′s mobile broadband scam

3 mobile offer a mobile broadband service. You buy a router which takes a mobile SIM, which has mobile data enabled and which is subscribed to a mobile data plan. The router connects to the mobile network and then shares that connection over a WIFI network in your home.

3 offer a number of plans based on the amount of data you want to download, ranging from 3GB per month up to 100GB per month. For example, 30GB per month costs €29.99.

If you go over your limit, you pay penalty charges. Then penalty rate is 5c per MB. This doesn’t sound like much, but if you go 1GB over your limit (half a Netflix movie), that’s €50. This applies whether you are on the 3GB or the 100GB plan. Once you get to 1GB over your limit, 3 stops the connection and you can’t download any more data until your plan renews at the start of your next billing cycle.

Does this sound like a scam? No, not really, but I haven’t included all the detail.

Given the penal rate that applies if you go over your limit, you would think that 3 had some sure fire mechanism of alerting you that you are approaching your limit or are at your limit, so that you could stop using the service.

Well, they don’t.

All they do is send a warning SMS message to the mobile phone number that is associated with the SIM card in your router. The only way that you’ll ever see this message is if you login to the router and check the messages, which you’re never going to do, because there is no reason to login to the router other than when you first set it up.

It would of course be much more logical for them to send you an email (you supply your email address when you buy the router and/or subscribe to the data plan), but they don’t do this. Nor to they make any functionality available whereby you can set up an email warning yourself.

Nor do they shut off your connection when you reach your limit. Of course, they could argue that they want to give users the capability to burst beyond their limit, in case of some emergency, but why then do they go ahead and shut down your connection when you go over your limit by 1GB, which costs €50? And why don’t they give users the option of having their connection shut off when they breach their limit? And regardless of both these points, you can also buy a data add-on for a couple of euro if you want to go above your limit in a given month.

The only explanation that stacks up here is that 3 are making a small fortune from users breaching their mobile data limits. I use the service, and am technically savvy, but in the first 4 months of using it, I breached my limit twice. I had budgeted paying €29.99 per month for 30GB per month over 4 months (Total: €119.96 for 120GB of data), but ended up paying €219.96 for 122GB of data.

Certain that 3 were playing offside here, I contacted ComReg to make a complaint. Surely, they would recognise how ridiculous it was for service providers to be warning users about breaching data limits by sending SMS messages to SIM cards buried in routers.

But no. To my amazement, I got a response from ComReg saying that mobile providers were not obliged to warn users about limit breaches by email. They were only required to send SMS messages!

Now my blood was really up.

I got to work with some Python and Selenium and wrote a script that logs into my 3 account once per hours and picks up my remaining allowance. This allowance is then posted to a my website, where it is checked by a simple web content checker app running on my phone. Every time the content changes, the app alerts me.

My plan now is to extend this functionality to other users, so that they too can cut off the supply of €50 fines being delivered to 3. If you would like to have your allowance monitored in this way, please let me know and I will send you what you need.

If you’re tech savvy, you can do it yourself. See here:

https://github.com/garrethmcdaid/3allowancecheck/