Brian and Elizabeth Williams thought they had a deal. And in the beginning, it did seem like a great offer.
But, as they found out, free usually comes with a catch or some eventual cost.
Because the pair of snowbirds from Toronto travel to Clearwater each year for three to four months, they wanted a way to help friends and family keep in touch.
TracFone offers a service, called "International Neighbors." With a TracFone, users can get a free international number attached to the local U.S. number they receive so friends and family in Canada and Mexico can call without international charges.
A great benefit, right?
Well, sort of. For snowbirds, such as the Williamses who bought their TracFone with the international service last winter, this can be a bit of hassle or cost some extra money to maintain.
The Williamses left Clearwater last spring with 1,000 minutes on their new TracFone. When they returned this winter for their annual stay in Florida, they had lost the International Neighbors phone number.
Like many pay-as-you-go cellphone services, the TracFone international calling program comes with a use-it-or-lose-it clause — unless you pony up some extra funds for an extended service plan.
Either way, you're going to have to pay extra money, so be prepared.
The Williamses are furious. They thought they did all they need to keep the phone active — they bought 1,000 extra minutes and wanted to use it throughout the year, even while not in Florida.
"We tried to use it in Canada," Brian Williams said. "It doesn't work in Canada."
TracFones only work in the United States. So for snowbirds, International Neighbors can end up costing you — either by making the phone useless as far as an intended purpose or by nickel and diming you.
Customers must use the TracFone at least once every 90 days to keep their International Neighbors number or they'll lose it.
So with a more than five-month gap between the Williamses uses of their TracFone, they lost the "free" benefit. And their efforts to get a new number were futile.
Derek Hewitt, senior vice president for marketing at Tracfone, says the International Neighbors numbers are so popular that they have run out of them.
"We have not been able to keep up with the demand for International Neighbors telephone numbers and we currently do not have any new numbers available," Hewitt said. "We are working to address this. This is one of the reasons why people who don't use their numbers lost them after 90 days."
It's left the Williamses feeling a bit short-changed.
So here's the Edge, if you have bought the International Neighbors plan or were thinking about it:
• Check the contract agreements. Pay as you go phones use various strategies to make up for the lack of a regular annual service contract. They add numerous restrictions and requirements for consumers to maintain service and benefits.
• Shop around. Different pay-as-you services offer benefits that are tailored for varying circumstances.
• Watch out for the service agreement. Ultimately, even the pay-as-you-go phone services want to find some way to lock you in for a higher fee. TracFone offers a service agreement for $100 that will maintain continuous service. Or consumers can enroll in one of their plans that charge a $5.99 a month maintenance fee. But this is costing you, so keep it in mind.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.