Mobile phone users who send a smiley or sad face, or any type of picture icon, in a text could be stung with massive charges – with one user billed more than £200 as a result of using these emojis.

Our research found the main issue is with pre-April 2014 Samsung handsets where users have racked up huge bills after adding emojis – picture icons such as :-) rather than the emoticon equivalent of :) – into text messages, despite having packages with all-inclusive text allowances (see our Mobile phone cost cutting guide for more ways to save).

This is known to affect the Samsung Galaxy S1, S2, S3, S4, plus the Galaxy Note 1, 2, 3 and Galaxy Ace. On these handsets, when an emoji is added to a text message it is automatically converted into a picture message. These aren't usually included in users' packages and can cost up to 40p each depending on the network provider.

Samsung says every device launched since last April has a default setting which means emojis can be sent in a text, however it adds that a warning message is displayed to inform users of older handsets that their message will be converted.

Update: 29 Jun 2015: Further research last month shows the problem could be even more widespread. Some iPhone users have reported huge bills from emojis, while those who've downloaded a special 'emoji keyboard' on any Android or Apple handset could also be hit. See the That smile might cost you MSE news story for more. Twitter users should also now beware autoplay - see our Twitter warning MSE news story for more.

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Beware being charged to send smileys

How to reduce or prevent charges

  • Check your bill: First go through your bill to find out if you've been charged extra for sending picture messages.

  • Use free apps to send 'free' texts: If you have been charged, consider using free apps that use the internet rather than your network to send messages. Of course, it's only free if you're not charged for data which will only happen for certain in a wi-fi zone or if you've unlimited data. Here are the top apps which allow you to send smileys and other images for free:

    Facebook chat: It's free and you can chat to one friend or have conversations with multiple friends at the same time. Select "Turn On Chat" to start a conversation and "Turn Off Chat" to go offline. 
    Whatsapp: The Instant Message service works on iPhones, BlackBerrys, Nokias and phones with Android. You can message friends who have the app installed, regardless of which smartphone they own. It's free to use for the first year, and about 58p/year after that. In addition to texting, users can send each other unlimited images, video and audio messages.
    - iMessage: If you want to message someone who's also using an apple device, eg iPhones, iPad, iPod, then the message is sent via the free iMessage.

  • Turn off MMS: Samsung users can do the following to switch off MMS messaging: Go to Messaging > Settings > Text messages > Input mode and select 'UniCode' instead of 'automatic'. For iPhone, go to Settings > Messages > MMS Messaging > Toggle to Off. This worked for MSE Megan with the RuPaul emoji keyboard, but it may not work for other apps.

  • Check before using external emoji keyboards. Check with the developer exactly how the emoji is sent before using it, as it may be sent via a chargeable picture message.

  • Complain: If you weren't aware that your text was being sent as a picture message and you've experienced high bills as a result, complain to your network provider. In some cases we've seen, bill payers were able to get some money back.

Guy Anker, managing editor of MoneySavingExpert.com says: "We have seen many complaints from our users who have racked up huge bills for sending what they thought were text messages.

"It is worth complaining to mobile phone providers if this was not made clear enough to you when you would be charged for a picture message.

"Why on earth would someone sending a text message think it would be sent as a picture message? Make sure you check your bills and consider using a free text message service if you really want to send a smiley to ensure you can avoid the extra costs."

Martin Lewis
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'My son's bill came to £209!'

One MoneySaver contacted us to say she received a bill for £209 on a £30 per month all-inclusive Samsung Galaxy S4 contract as a result of using emojis.

Tracy writes: "I phoned up EE to be informed that as my son has been including emojis in his messages, they are charged as picture messages, and not included in his contract.

"EE has now agreed to halve the bill, which I suppose I will have to accept, but I would just like to warn any other computer/smartphone-illiterate parents of the pitfalls!"

Maxine Salt, who has a Samsung S4, says: "I have been charged by O2 for sending smileys on the end of text messages. I was told they are classed as picture messages on Samsung phones. I don't know anyone else who has to pay for these! I had to pay nearly £20 on top of my bill.

"I didn't download anything - the emojis were on my keypad when I got the phone which is why I assumed it was OK to use and not an added charge."

Another user, Nicholas, who also has a Samsung S4, says: "I queried with EE why there were £20 extra charges on my phone bill and I was told that because I put smileys on the end of texts that they were classified as photo messages and I was being charged 40p for each one.

"After a bit of deliberation, it credited my account with a £10 goodwill gesture. I had no idea that these were classed as picture messages and I think EE should issue a statement explaining that these are 'picture messages'."

MoneySavingExpert asked EE and O2 about the picture message charges and both network providers said the handsets are responsible for converting texts into picture messages rather than it being due to any settings associated with the provider. They merely bill the phone user.

Which handsets convert texts into picture messages?

A text may convert into a costly picture message on certain handsets when users send an emoji, group messages or even business contacts. Here's what the phone manufacturers have told us:

Apple: It refuses to tell us when a text will be converted into a picture message.

Samsung:

  • Pre-April 2014 handsets, including the Samsung Galaxy S1, S2, S3, S4, the Galaxy Note 1, 2, 3 and Galaxy Ace automatically convert a text message into a picture message when an emoji is added
  • After three pages of text, a message switches into an MMS (Samsung says a warning is displayed)
  • When you send a contact as an attachment

Blackberry:

  • A message goes beyond seven segments of text (roughly 67-153 characters each depending on which character encodings are used)
  • A file is attached
  • A group chat is enabled for multiple participants
  • An email address is used for operator-based email-via-MMS service

HTC:

  • When you attach a vCard (contact)
  • Sharing a location via Maps
  • Attaching a picture
  • Sharing a music file
  • If you go over 1,500 characters in a text

Nokia:

  • A picture is attached to a text
  • Group chat

Sony:

  • A picture is attached to a text

What does a text or picture message cost?

The table below shows just how much picture messages can cost. What's more, few bundles include any picture messages.

What providers charge for sending an SMS/MMS
Mobile phone provider Pay as you go SMS Pay as you go MMS Pay monthly SMS Pay monthly MMS MMS bundles available
EE 12p 40p 15p 40p 50 – £6
O2 14p 35p 15p 40p 50 – £5.11
Orange 12p 40p 15p 40p 50 – £5
Three 2p 17.4p Unlimited 17.4p N/A
T-Mobile 14p 30p 15p 40p 23 – £3.58
Virgin Mobile 12p 30p 15p 40p N/A
Vodafone 14p 45p 18p 45p 100 – £2.50
All confirmed contracts do not include MMS as standard. Prices correct as of 8 Dec 2015.

What does regulator Ofcom say?

An Ofcom spokesperson says: "We are aware that in some circumstances a text may be transferred into a picture message (for example, where one text is sent to multiple recipients or where an emoticon or emoji is used).

"Based on our previous engagement with mobile providers about long texts/texts sent to multiple recipients and the subsequent conversion to picture messages, our understanding is that the conversion is a handset issue. How that message is subsequently charged would be a mobile provider issue.

"However there are rules on transparency - we would expect mobile providers to make clear to consumers how much a picture message cost and when such charges would apply."

According to Ofcom's latest Incidence of unexpectedly high bills report, conducted between July 2013 and May 2014, of the 5,696 people questioned, 4% said they experienced higher than usual bills because they had sent picture messages not included in their monthly text allowance.

This news story was first published on 12 December 2014. It was updated on 6 Feb 2015, on 26 May, 29 June and 8 Dec 2015 with further details.

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