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I Was a Cellphone Hostage

How to handle cellphone service problems.

As a consumer, you might expect that when a new $100 product stops working days after it's removed from the box, you'd get a refund or quick exchange—and an apology.

What I got instead were charges for shipping, because the company doesn't allow in-store exchanges, and empty promises that customer care would return my calls. I also was given a choice: either pay more for what I already purchased or take my business elsewhere, which would cost me $800, the penalty for canceling my service contract.

Yes, I was a cellphone hostage.

Soon after I renewed a one-year family calling plan with T-Mobile in July, one of my four new phones stopped working. After two months, I finally got a replacement for a total of $184. It took 12 calls to T-Mobile Customer Care plus unanswered letters, unreturned calls to top executives and a salesman's threat to evict me from the T-Mobile store where I returned the defective Razr V3 phone.

My experience, says Brian Brueckman, vice president for T-Mobile Customer Care, is "the rare exception."

Yet in the past three years, consumers filed more complaints about wireless providers than about any other industry, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Blame it on the early termination fee (ETF). That's the $150 to $200 per-line penalty for canceling a service contract before its expiration date. "Because of the ETF, cellphone companies can do what they want," says consumer watchdog Ed Mierzwinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington. "They provide terrible service and say, 'If you want to walk, then pay us $200 and you can walk.' "

A 2005 PIRG survey of 1,000 households found that nearly half of cellphone users said they would switch carriers if they didn't have to pay the fee.

The Federal Communications Commission oversees the wireless industry and takes consumer complaints (1-888-225-5322 toll-free or at but has not initiated enforcement actions. The agency has thwarted efforts by states to enact laws to curb abusive practices by wireless carriers, says AARP attorney Stacy Canan.

FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball didn't respond to queries about consumer protection or disclose how many complaints the FCC has investigated, citing confidentiality.

Here are ways to handle service problems:

Complain. "If you fight with a cell company, recognize that you're David versus Goliath," says Mierzwinski. He advises informing your state attorney general, utilities commission and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

Write your elected officials. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., have introduced a bill that would require wireless companies to prorate penalty fees and allow customers to make changes in their calling plans without extending their contracts. AT&T; and Verizon have already amended their policies.

Ask questions. Don't sign a contract without knowing the company's policy for handling unforeseen problems. Customers must have at least 14 days to cancel a contract—without penalties.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of AARP/Sterling's “Scam-Proof Your Life.”

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