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Ouch! Cell Phone Bill Surprises

A Maryland woman purchased a $39.99-a-month cell phone plan for her daughter because the salesman told her that it included unlimited "two-way" calls to her daughter's friends. When the first bill arrived, it was $976. When she called customer service, they said that there was nothing in her written contract about unlimited two-way calling.

A 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 minutes for those calls. He received a bill for $731.

Understanding cell phone plans can be confusing. Many consumers have found out that it is easy to make a mistake and run up an expensive bill. Here are some of the most common pitfalls that affect cell phone users.

The plan doesn't have a return policy. The "best" cell phone plan in the world won't do you any good if you can't make calls where you need to. If your plan doesn't have a return/refund period, the carrier may not let you cancel the contract unless you pay an early termination fee of between $150 to $200. You should look for a plan that gives you a couple of weeks or so to bring the phone back and cancel the contract if the phone won't work for you. Be sure to test the phone in all places where you'll be likely to make calls.

The plan doesn't reflect what the salesperson said. Many consumers have complained that their salesperson said they were getting free long-distance, unlimited weekend minutes, or some other feature that turned out not to be included in their plan. Be sure to get a written contract that details your plan. It always makes things easier to get oral promises in writing. If you buy the phone and plan somewhere other than at a store of the carrier, for example at an electronics retailer or at a college fair booth, be especially careful to get all promises in writing.

Exceeding the included minutes. Most plans include lots of "off-peak" (night and weekend) minutes and a limited number of "peak" (daytime) minutes. 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, according to their carrier's definition. They very quickly use up their included peak minutes and are charged 40 or 50 cents a minute or more for the additional minutes. Families who sign up for multi-phone plans in which everyone shares the same "basket" of minutes sometimes overrun their included minutes if they can't work out how many minutes each person will use.

To avoid these problems, be sure you (and everyone in a family plan) understand how your carrier defines calling periods. Parents sharing a family plan with teens should discuss how many minutes each person will use.

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.

Roaming. When you make a call in an area where your carrier's network does not reach, your call may go through on another company's network, and you will be billed expensive "roaming" charges. To avoid these, choose a carrier that has the best coverage in the area you'll need to make calls. Tell the carrier where you will be making calls and ask to see its coverage map. Be aware, though, that carriers' coverage maps often don't show large gaps in coverage. Be sure to ask neighbors and co-workers who their carrier is and if they are happy with it. Ask if your phone has a warning light, beep or some other indicator to alert you when roaming fees would apply, or a feature that would prevent you from making a roaming call. Or, look for a plan that does not charge any roaming fees.

Promotional rates and features that are good for a limited time only. Consumers sometimes do not notice or remember that they are receiving a special "promotional" rate or feature that is only good for a limited period, or for the initial year of their contract. When the promotional period is up, the carrier begins charging a higher rate or charging for the formerly free feature. To avoid this problem, be sure to read your contract to understand whether any of the rates or features are short-term promotional offers.

Not realizing that toll-free calls or calls made with a long-distance calling card aren't free. Even though the cell carrier won't charge you for long-distance, these calls are still charged for airtime minutes. That can be expensive, depending on your plan.

Accepting an upgrade that extends the contract period. If your carrier offers to upgrade you to a better plan or phone, ask if it requires entering a new contract period. If it does, you will be locked into that plan for another year or two, and will not be able to cancel unless you pay an early termination fee.

Before You Choose a Cell Plan

• Ask friends, neighbors and co-workers who live in your area which wireless company they use and whether they are happy with it.

• Read the contract carefully. Wireless companies often advertise what sound like great monthly rates, but there may be restrictions and limitations.

• 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.

More information: There are several Web sites that compare wireless plans, such as www.getconnected.com, www.letstalk.com and www.myrateplan.com. You can enter information about your calling patterns and see which plan in your area would be the best buy for you. Also, Consumer Reports magazine has published several recent articles about choosing a cell phone and plan.

March/April 2003

Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division
Consumer hotline: (410) 528-8662 or 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free

 
 

Attorney General of Maryland 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free / TDD: (410) 576-6372
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