March 14, 2003
Sean Caine, 410-576-6357
FIND CELL PHONE MISTAKES EASY TO MAKEAND EXPENSIVE
General J. Joseph Curran, Jr. says many consumers find understanding
their cell phone plans confusing, and that it's easy to make a mistake
and run up an expensive bill. In the latest issue of his Consumer's
Edge newsletter, Curran offers advice on how to avoid cell bill
surprises, and alerts consumers to some common pitfalls:
checking whether the plan has a return policy. The consumer
should look for a cell plan that allows a couple of weeks to cancel
the contract if the phone won't work in the areas the consumer needs
it to. If the plan doesn't have a return period, or if the consumer
doesn't bring the phone back within the return period, the carrier
may not let the consumer out of the contract unless he or she pays
an early termination fee, often between $150 and $200.
getting promises in writing. One Maryland consumer complained
that a salesperson said her contract would allow her teenage daughter
to make unlimited calls to a friend with the same plan for only
$39.99 a month. The two friends called each other a lot.
The first bill was $976. The carrier said there was nothing in the
written contract about unlimited two-way calling. Curran recommends
that consumers ask for a copy of their cell phone plan in writing,
read it carefully before agreeing to sign it, and make sure to get
all oral promises in writing.
being clear about when the "peak" and "off-peak"
periods are. Consumers sometimes get into trouble when they
think they are making night or weekend calls, but in fact they are
calling in a "peak" period, as defined by their carrier.
That may cost as much as 40 or 50 cents a minute.
members sharing a "basket of minutes" not setting ground
rules. Parents sharing a family plan with kids should discuss
how many minutes each person will use, or else it is very easy to
exceed the amount of included minutes. Some consumers are now choosing
to avoid the problem of minute limits by opting for plans that offer
unlimited anytime minutes. The basic monthly rate for these plans
is higher, but they avoid unpleasant surprises.
realizing that toll-free calls or calls made with a long-distance
calling card aren't free on a cell phone. One Maryland man purchased
a calling card with long-distance minutes and told his daughter
to use it when making long-distance calls on her cell phone. Unfortunately,
he did not realize that she would still be charged airtime for those
calls. He received a bill for $731.
pitfalls are unexpected "roaming" charges because the
carrier's coverage area has large gaps, and promotional rates that
are good for a limited time only.
avoid cell phone bill surprises, be sure to scrutinize the terms
of the offer before you sign up for a plan," Curran said. "Ask
questions, read the fine print, and get all promises in writing."
also recommends that before choosing a cell phone, consumers should:
Ask friends, neighbors and co-workers who live in your area which
wireless company they use and whether they are happy with it.
Ask about the refund policy and get it in writing. If the phone
doesn't work where you need it to, you don't want to have to pay
a cancellation fee to get out of your contract.
Keep a copy of your contract, in case you have a problem in the
Carefully review your monthly bill to ensure that you are being
billed at the rate you agreed to and that you're not being charged
for any extras you didn't request.
can request a copy of the Consumer's Edge on cell phone plans
by calling (410) 576-6500 or read it online at www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/edge110.htm.