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10 Tips: Avoid cell phone contract headaches

Avoid headaches on contracts for cell phones

Thousands of consumers are locked into long-term cell phone contracts laden with sky-high, headache-inducing fees. Sound familiar? These tips can help:

1 Give your phone a thorough test drive. Clarify how much time you'll have to return your phone and get out of your contract — likely a week to 15 days. Use your phone in all rooms of your home, in your yard, on your commute, at your job and at your favorite stores. If the service is spotty or calls keep getting dropped, return the phone.

2 Don't get trapped in "cell phone jail." Avoid contracts by using a prepaid phone.

3 Pursue other escape plans. Swap your phone and your plan with someone else online through a trading site such as CellTradeUSA.com. Or call a customer service representative and attempt to negotiate your early-termination fees.

4 Avoid "handset upgrade" fees. If you switch out your phone, be sure to eyeball your bill carefully for the next few months. You could be hit with a "handset upgrade" fee of $30 to $40, even if you paid retail for the new phone. Call customer service. You could get a refund.

5 Just say no to "premium text messaging." The fees associated with subscribing to joke-of-the-day or special ring tone services can be astronomical.

6 Monitor those minutes. Regularly check your bill and your cell phone company's Web site to make sure you're not close to exceeding your monthly allotment. Set yourself up with enough minutes so you won't inadvertently go overboard. If your provider offers warnings that you're approaching your limit, sign up for that valuable service.

7 Pause before deciding to switch or not switch area codes. If you recently moved to the Tampa Bay area, or if you're thinking of moving away, you may just keep your old cell phone number with its old area code for the sake of convenience. But your taxes are based on your area code regardless of where you live — and the differences can be staggering. To avoid surprises, check out www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/435.html.

8 Ask about rock-bottom plans. Would you like to have a phone handy for emergencies only? Then ask more than one company about inexpensive deals that never get promoted. It's likely that you could score a very low-minute, free-weekend, low-cost cell phone plan.

9 Inquire about other deals. Some cell phone companies may offer deals "for new customers only," but you may be able to get those deals even if you aren't a new customer by requesting them in a persistent, yet polite, way.

10 Know where else you can turn. If you're feeling run over by fees and you're not getting satisfaction from customer service, send a firm letter of complaint to the offending business with carbon copies to the Florida Division of Consumer Services (www.800helpfla.com, toll-free 1-800-435-7352), the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org, toll-free 1-800-525-1447) and the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov/bcp/index.shtml, toll-free 1-877-382-4357).

Laura T. Coffey (laura@tentips.org)

Sources: Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day — and What You Can Do About It, by Bob Sullivan; Red Tape Chronicles (http://redtape.msnbc.com/)

10 Tips: Avoid cell phone contract headaches 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 1:26pm]
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