When Gary Browning, 42, sat down to sort out his monthly bills in November, he was shocked to find he owed T-Mobile £270 for a bill that would usually cost him £20.
Gary, like many parents, had opted to take out a mobile phone contract for his teenage daughter Sarah, 14, feeling that a fixed contract for 350 minutes and 300 texts a month would be more than enough. But he had been blissfully unaware that during November his daughter had been racking up a huge bill on calls to her boyfriend who was visiting family in Somalia.
As international calls weren't included on her contract, Gary was left with no choice but to cough up.
Gary's story probably sounds familiar to many parents of teenagers. After all, kids will be kids and sometimes it seems there's nothing you can do, or say, to stop them from spending hours on the phone. But are there actually any precautions you can take?
As Gary's experience shows, it is always worth taking extra care when you take out a mobile contract for children - calls, texts and internet are charged at high rates if your child goes over their contract's allowance. They can also rack up additional costs for extras that are not included in the monthly deal, such as picture messages and international calls.
One way to avoid unexpected charges is to buy your teenager a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) phone. Not only will this eradicate the possibility of being faced with an expensive bill, it can also make your child more aware of what they are spending than a contract.
IN AN EMERGENCY
However, PAYG contracts have one big drawback – if your child runs out of credit they can't contact you.
To minimise this problem, some networks now offer 'emergency credit' so that even if they do run out of credit, your kids can still get hold of you. Orange, Vodafone and O2 'lend' customers between £1 and £2.50 if you activate the emergency credit features. Just call or text their top-up lines - the amount you use is then taken from your next top-up.
T-Mobile and Virgin offer users five free Call Me Back texts, and Vodafone offers two free Buzz Back texts a day, so that your kids can contact you. Failing that, your kids can always rely on the traditional reverse-charge call. They can call any UK mobile or landline by dialling 0800MUMDAD (0800 686323) - the call will then be charged to the person receiving the call.
Another downside with PAYG contracts is that the call and text rates can be more expensive than contract rates, says Dominic Baliszewski, telecoms expert at broadbandchoices.co.uk. "But topping up your credit can trigger special offers such as bonus credit, free minutes, texts and mobile data allowance."
Vodafone will give you either 100 minutes, 300 texts or 50MB when you top up £10, while T-Mobile offers unlimited texts, 100 UK minutes, 70 international minutes or free Blackberry mail and BBM. It also offers unlimited internet if you top up by £15 a month. Orange's 'animal tariffs' offer extras from free music and texts (the Monkey tariff) to free international calls (the Camel tariff).
Although PAYG contracts have their advantages if your teenager is a heavy talker, texter or surfer, you may be better off opting for a contract deal, particularly if you want to buy your child the latest handset, which these days can cost hundreds of pounds, says Baliszewski.
"Discuss your child's usage with them. Are they calling their friends all the time or do they communicate mainly through text? This will help you determine whether a PAYG deal or contract with inclusive allowance is the best option," adds Baliszewski.
Top capped mobile contracts
|Tesco Mobile||£15||500||5,000||500MB||Blackberry Curve|
|T-Mobile YouFix||£26||300||Unlimited||500MB|| Blackberry Curve+ 60 |
| 3Mobile Ulitimate |
A capped contract eliminates any extra costs if your child goes over their limit. It offers the best of both worlds, acting like any normal contract, but when the monthly allowance has been used up you can only use your phone by topping up like a PAYG phone.
Tesco Mobile and 3Mobile both allow you to cap any of the contracts they offer, while T-mobile has a choice of specific YouFix capped contracts to chose from.
There is also the option of a contract offering unlimited data, calls and texts to eliminate any worry when it comes to your child's bill. T-Mobile's £26-a-month plan offers 2,000 minutes, unlimited texts and internet, while O2's contract for the same price gets you unlimited minutes and texts and 1GB of data.
But always read the small print: some services, such as picture messages, international calls and premium-rate numbers are often not included in your plan.
If you do opt for a contract, be sure to shop around. Comparison sites such as moneysupermarket.com or mobilechoices.co.uk can help you find the best deal.