There are few things we Americans depend on more than our cell phones, and few things we lose more often. In New York, cell phones are the most frequently lost items on the subways.
But losing a cell phone can cost you a lot more than the price of the phone, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.
While Wendy Nguyen was away on vacation, she didn't realize back home in San Francisco her cell phone had been stolen and someone was running up a huge bill.
"It was to places like Guatemala, El Salvador, places that I obviously had never called before," says Nguyen.
Her usual bill is under $50. This one was over $26,000 and her carrier, Cingular Wireless, demanded payment.
"Our customers are responsible for unauthorized charges before they contact Cingular," says Lauren Garner of Cingular
In Chicago, Lauren Ortosky didn't know her cell phone had been stolen until she was charged $4,000 for calls to Europe and Africa. Her mother called the provider, T-Mobile.
"They said, 'Listen honey, we see this all the time. Just pay it and be more careful next time,'" says Maureen Ortosky.
By law, if you lose your credit card, your liability is limited to just $50. But the same laws don't apply to cell phones — and cell phone companies like it that way.
Geoff Brown of the California Public Utilities Commission pushed hard for a cell phone customers' bill of rights. He was defeated, he says, by a politically powerful industry.
"They want no regulation. I was disgusted by the pressure," Brown says. "But I understood where it was coming from — enormous financial contributions that are made to politicians."
John Walls speaks for the cell phone industry, which, he says, serves consumers well without regulation.
"Some legislators think we need a law for everything," Walls says. "We have delivered a product that people love. That's why we have nearly 200 million subscribers right now."
But the Better Business Bureau gets more complaints about cell phone companies than any other business. Still, no state regulations protect consumers.
"I consider it a crime against the public," Brown says.
The industry says it tries hard to keep customers happy. But Cingular pursued Wendy Nguyen for months for $26,000. Only after she told her story to CBS station KPIX-TV in San Francisco did Cingular drop the charges.
And after Lauren Ortosky told CBS station WBBM-TV in Chicago about her $4,000 bill, T-Mobile cut it to $1,200.
Copyright 2005 CBS. All rights reserved.
Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com