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Cell phone tips

The Fixer could write a book about all the complaints we hear about cellphones -- from readers who lost their phones, couldn't get clear calls, needed more minutes or wanted to cancel. Sadly, many readers are stuck in lengthy cellphone contracts, and there's nothing the Fixer can fix about that.

Particularly annoying are the the hefty early-termination fees contained in most contracts. With some plans, if you make any changes, such as increasing or decreasing your number of minutes, your one- or two-year commitment starts over. And, if you cancel, you're charged $150 to $200 per phone.

Morgan Jindrich, cellphone guru in the Austin, Texas, office of Consumers Union, the organization behind Consumer Reports magazine, says many consumers enter into cellphone contracts with little or no idea of what they contain. It's only when they get hit with these fees that they take notice.

Early-termination fees are the No. 1 complaint to her office, Jindrich says.

There are a few things you can do to avoid cellphone problems. Consumers Union operates a Web site -- http://www.hearusnow.org/ -- with all kinds of great tips for before you sign up for a plan and for after you're enrolled.

The site also has interesting tales from consumers, who share horror stories as well as good experiences.

A few tips for before you shop around, courtesy of Jindrich and CU:

Think carefully about how you'll use this phone: will you use it more during the day or on nights and weekends? Will you be making mostly local calls, or while traveling? How much time will you spend on the phone? Do you need extra features, such as text messaging or a camera phone?

Compare plans on service and price, but also ask your friends about their experiences. A good deal isn't so great if the service fades in and out.

Read the contract carefully! Compare activation fees and early-termination fees. Never rely on oral promises from a sales person.

Consider using an authorized dealer, rather than a discount store that's a reseller. If you have a problem later, a reseller will be less likely to be able to help.

Find out how each company defines "minutes." Not every company defines day, night, weekend and peak minutes the same way, and many companies charge a whole minute even if only a fraction is used. What happens if you exceed your allotted minutes? Also, check to see what is meant by "local" calling area and whether it's large enough for your needs.

When considering price, remember that taxes, fees and surcharges can add 20 percent or more to the advertised price.

All providers offer at least a 14-day trial period. Use that time to make sure the phone works everywhere you need it, with no dropped calls.

If, after all your efforts, you still feel like you're not getting what you paid for, complain to the cellphone company. You can track down corporate contact info online at www.hearusnow.org. Send copies of your complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, your local Better Business Bureau, the Illinois Attorney General's Office and CTIA -- The Wireless Association (http://www.ctia.org/).



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