In what may be the largest consumer telecom refund in history, Verizon is preparing to refund up to $90 million to customers of its wireless service. The refunds are to make up for data charges that should not have been charged.

It is estimated that approximately 15 million customers will receive refunds of between $2 to $6. Current customers who are affected will see the refund as a credit on their October or November bill. Former customers who are no longer using Verizon will receive refund checks.

The improper charges occurred on accounts that did not have data plans, but were charged the data fee due to either a software program on their phone initiating a connection without the user’s knowledge, or by the user inadvertently going online.

A statement issued by Verizon said, “The majority of the data sessions involved minor data exchanges caused by software built into their phones; others included accessing certain web links, which should not have incurred charges. We have addressed these issues to avoid unintended data charges in the future.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been conducting an investigation into the issue of over charges for the past 5 months. Sources close to the investigation indicate that Verizon may face a fine for not telling customers about the issue, which has reportedly been occurring since 2007.

The size of the problem with the data charges became obvious in mid 2009. The writer of the “Money Matters” column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer discussed the issue he was experiencing with a $1.99 data charge on his Verizon bill.

More than 400 readers responded, contacting the paper with examples of the same thing happening to them. The paper learned of cases where  “customers were charged when their phones were off, the batteries were dead, the phone’s Internet access was blocked or even when the phones didn’t have the software to go online.”

A 2009 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “Some (users) were irate because they’d punished their children because they wrongly believed the kids had gone on the Internet. One reader said his mom’s phone was charged for Internet access – weeks after the mother had died and her phone sat idle in her empty home.”