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For Immediate Release
March 14, 2003
Contact: Sean Caine, 410-576-6357
scaine@oag.state.md.us

CONSUMERS FIND CELL PHONE MISTAKES EASY TO MAKE–AND EXPENSIVE

Attorney 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:

Not 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.

Not 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.

Not 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.

Family 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.

Not 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.

Other 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.

"To 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."

Curran 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 future.

• 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.

Consumers 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.

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