Top 10 Things to Know About Your Cellular Service

Has your cell phone bill slowly climbed from $50 to $100 or higher over the years?  Do you have a hard time deciphering your bill?  Do you want to get a grip on your cell phone service, expanding your options (and even features), and lower your bill at the same time?  If so… then read on.  Below is a top 10 list of ways to get a grip on your cellular service, and not get ripped off.

1.  Customer Service / In-Store Representatives

The last thing you want to do is deal with a carrier’s customer service department or in-store reps.  In store reps work off of commission, and will flat out lie to you to get you to sign on the dotted line.  They’re your modern day cars salesman.  For example, people are interested in the bottom line, so they’ll ask what their bill will be.  It’s not uncommon for the representative to quote the rate plan / messaging / data price and neglect to mention regulatory fees, taxes, and ‘extra’ features like handset insurance, family account control features, and other nickel & dime stuff that can significantly increase the bottom line, so they’ll quote you $90 bucks a month for unlimited talk/text/data, but after all the bells and whistle add ons, taxes & regulatory fees, your bill might be $120 a month… $30 more than you were expecting when you left the store.   Now, customer service reps… their job is two fold.  Number 1, empathize with the customer’s predicament, Number two, try to talk customers out of removing features, and at the same time suggest more features or rate plan changes that, when painted a certain way look good, but after the chips fall, it’s more advantageous to the carrier.  Service reps feet are also held to the fire to keep the call length within a certain time frame, so it’s not beyond a rep to feed you a line of shit to get you off the phone, or neglect to perform a task you’re requesting.  For example, a customer calls up to remove the $8 insurance feature because, well, let’s face it, with the economy the way it is, people are cutting corners wherever they can.   While the customer might really want to keep the feature, they’re cutting back to try to make ends meet.  Representatives are required to perform a task that’s requested by a customer, but at the same time are pressured to not remove features, or add features without the customer’s consent.  While this behavior is expressly forbidden by the carrier, the reality of call center operations causes this sort of thing to be quite common.  The bottom line is, never trust a representative either in-store or over the phone to tell you the truth.  While this sort of thing is not guaranteed to happen when you go into a store or call customer service, it’s common enough to worry about, and there are ways to get around having to deal with either person… read Number Two about the carrier’s website…

2. Your carrier’s website…

…can be your savior.  Once registered with your carrier’s website, you can find the answer to virtually any question you might pose to an in store representative or customer support representative.  You can upgrade your handset, (and generally get the best deal via the website because you can shop and pay without any human interaction until your order is physically processed by the carrier’s distribution center), add & remove features, see what rate plans and features are available, get information about international calling (and roaming), add a line, remove a line, see your bill, and just about anything else you can do via customer support.  You can often even do troubleshooting via chat.  The major advantage being, when you add or remove a feature, you can be sure it’s actually done, or read a policy, know you’re getting accurate information, and not some service rep feeding you BS because the call is running long.

3.  Cramming

There’s been alot of news stories hitting the press lately about cell phone cramming, but it’s been around a very long time and land line phones are vulnerable to this horrible practice too.   Basically, cramming is a 3rd party placing a charge onto your cell phone bill with your permission, but without your knowledge.  Here’s how it works.  You receive a text message offering you some bullshit service that you wouldn’t want for free let alone a $10 monthly subscription price.  Trivia, jokes, access to games, etc.   The trick her is to get your permission, but, at the same time, keep you from knowing you gave permission in the first place.  The text message will essentially say something along the lines of  “If you don’t want this service, text NO to this number…”.  Therefore, you must take action and respond negatively to the ad, or else the 3rd party provider will consider your inaction a tacit approval to place the charge on your bill.  Other methods include calling customers and having them take some sort of survey in which any positive answer to any question posed is considered permission to add the charge to your bill.  Also, voting for TV shows like American Idol or America’s Got Talent can sting you with these charges too.  I once typed my phone number into a website for free ringtones, and got hit with a $10 charge for some bullshit subscription I never agreed to, but, if I would have read the fine print buried 20 links into the website, it clearly states by entering your number you’re agreeing to the subscription.  Look for 3rd party charges on your bill, although good luck finding it because it’s generally buried on page 3 of your bill under “premium services” or some other intentionally poorly labeled header.  In any case, know what rate plan and features you’re subscribed to and investigate any other charges you don’t understand.  The carrier’s will credit back the charges if you call and complain about it, but they’ll also blame the 3rd party content provider as the bad guy, but don’t listen to them.  The carriers all charge a $1 to $2 processing fee to these scammers, and each charge represents a (very profitable) revenue stream for the carrier as well.  Spreading your number around where it shouldn’t be in the first place will cause more of these charges to appear, so never give your number out to anyone for anything unless it’s necessary.  For example, you have to give your bank and insurance companies your number for obvious reasons, but putting your number on a sweepstakes entry for a free TV will win you telemarketing calls and 3rd party content charges… not the TV.  Most carriers offer a “chargeable content block” feature for free that you can add to your account to prevent these 3rd party content providers from drilling you in the first place.  With this feature, no additional charges can be placed on your account (short of overages) so that way the kids can’t buy ringtones, wallpapers, etc and more than anything, 3rd party content providers cannot cram your bill.

4.   Discounts and Contractual Agreements

Smartphone people want a big discount on their high end phone, and non-smart phone people want a free phone.  Despite common beliefs, neither is true.  How can this be you say?  I paid $200 for a $500 phone, so doesn’t that mean I got a discount for signing the 2 year agreement?  Nope.  Here’s the deal.  A carrier pays about $450 bucks for that smartphone that retails for $500.  They sold it to you for $200 bucks, which leaves the carrier $250 short.  By you agreeing to maintain service for 2 years, the carrier recovers the rest of the cost of the phone by charging you a higher rate for your rate plan, thus recovering the discounted amount.  This is why there are early termination fees, because if the carrier hasn’t recovered the $250 they’ve fronted you, you have to pay them off so they break even on the phone, which is all the carrier is looking to do.  The actual money maker for the carrier is the service they provide, not the mark up on the phone they sold you.  You have at least one, maybe two other choices that you can take that will save you money in the long run.  Either buy the phone outright, (that’s right, full retail price), or take advantage of an installment plan that some carriers offer.  By buying the phone up front, or even using an installment plan, you’re paying full price (just as if you signed a agreement…. remember the initial $200 plus the extra cost of your rate plan adds up to full price in the end with 2 year agreements), and by paying full price, you’re not obligated to sign any sort of long agreement or be worried about buying yourself out of the contract.  Equipment installment plans generally let you make payments (added onto your bill) over time (much like 2 yr agreement), but without the early termination fee.  You can often accelerate the installment plan and pay off the phone early, so if you want to leave the carrier, or just get out from under the extra monthly fee on your bill, you can.  Being out of contract, you can often take advantage of a discounted rate plan because the carrier isn’t trying to recover the cost of subsidizing your purchase.  As far as phone first devices go, you have more choices than anyone.  A typical dumb phone runs as low as $20 off the wall at the local discount store or as high as about $180.  Why sign a 2 year agreement for a $20 phone?  Just buy the damn thing and be done with it, cut a deal on a good non-contractable rate plan, and you own your phone outright.  Also, one of the biggest tricks is to simply buy the prepaid version of a phone.  For example, T-Mobile sells the LG-GS170 flip phone for $69.99.  With a 2 year agreement, the price drops to $10 bucks, but you’re contracted for the next two years.  If you go to the same companies prepaid section of the website, you’ll see the same exact phone for $37.49.  It’s stupid to sign a 2 year agreement to get a phone for $9.99 when for another $27.50, you can get the prepaid version off the wall at WalMart for $37.50.  Toss the prepaid activation kit, keep the sim card as a spare, pull the sim card from your old phone and drop it in the prepaid phone (which is identical in every respect) to the post paid phone.  There’s no difference at all, it’s the same company selling the same phone in two different places at radically different prices.  Now that you’re not contracted, you can get the discounted rate plan and save even more.

5. Rate Plans and Features

Carriers are constantly switching up on rate plans coming up with new ways of cooking up the same old soup a different way in order to make it look more appealing for you to switch to the new plan.  The reality of the situation is that every time they create a new plan, they can set old features (like text and data features) as “incompatible” with the new rate plans, therefore offering you a sweet deal on the rate plan, but getting you onto higher messaging and data features that are “compatible” with the new rate plan.  Basically robbing Peter to pay Paul by lowering your rate plan but increasing your messaging and/or data costs.  In the end, the best way to save money on your rate plan is to track your usage.  The carrier’s website can be useful as you can often see how many plan minutes verses night/weekend/mobile-mobile minutes you’ve used.  Why have an unlimited minute plan if you’re consistently under 1000 minutes, and the carrier has a 1000 minute plan that’s $20 a month cheaper?  Plan minutes are generally referred to as “Anytime” or “Whenever” minutes, and those are the minutes you’re buying.  Typically today’s rate plans include nights and/or weekends and/or carrier-carrier minutes for free.  If your tracking indicates you can survive on a 1000 minute plan, loose the unlimited plan.  Also, family plans can be tricky as some plans share the plan minute total equally between all users while “unlimited” family plans typically have unlimited minutes for just the first two lines while additional lines cost extra to have unlimited usage.  The best bet is to read all the ins and outs of a family plan (the fine print) so you can setup a family plan correctly so that everyone’s happy with no overage charges.  As far as features go, everyone’s pretty up to date on messaging and data plan costs, but carriers often offer other features, such as handset protection, which can add to the bottom line, but overall can come in handy, but beware of what you’re getting into.  Most carriers offer handset protection, and they all do business with the same company…. Asurion.  Know what you’re getting into, because when doing an insurance claim for a lost or stolen handset, you’re pretty likely to get a refurbished phone.  Alot of people go out and get a $500 phone, loose it or break it, then pay $130 deductible only to find out the phone replacement they received has obviously been used before with scratches.  Other features, like “ringback tones” or “caller tunes” are useless add ons that you should steer clear of.  Go through (again) the carrier’s website and look at all the features that are available, and at what cost.  Many features that can be useful (like chargeable content blocks, messaging blocks, international roaming, etc) are offered for free.

6. Late / Restoration fees

Back in the day, my carrier would “Ladex” my line if I didn’t pay the bill on time, in other words, I could receive calls, just not make them, until I paid the bill.  I more or less used to use that as my signal to pay the bill…lol.  However, things are different today.  Carrier’s typically charge $5 late fees and $20-35 restoration fees per line.  An account with 5 lines and a $35 per line restoration fee will incur a $175 account restoration fee!  That’s just crazy.  So, before you get burned, be sure to pay the bill on time, or, if anything, call the carrier to setup a payment arrangement to keep the lines from being suspended.

7.  Internet options

This is where things can get tricky.  Again, track your usage.  Virtually all smartphones have data usage tracking apps available to them via the app markets (generally free) that will show you over time what your usage is.  Buy your data plan according to what you need and quit bitching that your carrier doesn’t have an “unlimited” option.  Try and be prudent about your usage, and you’ll be OK, and also use the carrier’s method of usage checking to see where you’re at as far as the carrier is concerned to avoid “Arm and a Leg” per megabyte overage charges.  Look for a carrier who offers data throttling vs per megabyte overage charges or complete cut off (yikes!).  Connect to wifi if your device is wifi capable.  Most carriers offer “free, unlimited” access to their mobile wifi hotspots, plus hunt down all the free wifi hot spots in your area… and use them.  Don’t rely 100 percent on your cellular data connection and you’ll find your usage is much more manageable to the point where you might even get by with a lower threshold data plan saving you money.  I have the old school AT&T unlimited plan, which is truly unlimited with no overage or data throttling, (which I hope to take to the grave with me, but probably won’t be able to), so I have Cart Blanche  when it comes to data, yet, despite my never ending cup of data, I typically use 1-1.5 Gig per month, which would qualify me for a lower tier data plan rather than a higher one.  Be prudent about your usage too.  Get rid of the bit torrent app on your android and download your illegally obtained movies from your PC like the rest of us.

8.  Text messaging.

God I hate text messaging.  Yeah, I know, I’m older rather than younger and don’t text alot, but the whole concept of text messaging is just bullshit.  It’s a 140 character limited, don’t think about special character, piggy back, last minute add on, idiot proof service that’s way the fuck over charged to the customer.  Why?  Because SMS is idiot proof.  Type a message, type the phone number it’s going to, hit send.  Therefore, every numb nut jack hole on the planet can (and does) do it.  Email and instant messaging is far more effective, and cheaper (free essentially), yet because you have to sign in, or (gasp)… God forbid… remember an email address (or learn how to program it into your contact list), it’s not the all encompassing ruler of electronic instant messaging that SMS is.  On top of all that, SMS is double charged, as if you and I both don’t have some messaging package, then I get dinged sending you a message, and you get dinged receiving it.  Back in the day, incoming messages were not charged, but some exec some where came up with the idea of  “hey! let’s charge twice” for the same fucking thing because we can bullshit to make something ridiculously overpriced, even more so.

9.  International Options

Carriers all publish their international option rates along with what frequencies are in use in that particular country so you can ensure your phone will work there.  You sometimes need an additional (free) feature added to your line to enable international roaming, and some carriers have discounted rates via an additional feature (generally with a monthly fee attached) that you can add before leaving, and remove upon returning to give you very big discounted rates.   Also, if your phone is paid off, carriers will generally unlock the phone for you if it’s paid for in full, and you can often take your unlocked phone overseas, and buy a prepaid account for use in that country.  Say for example, you’re working in England for the next 6 months, and the majority of your calls are domestic.  Instead of paying long distance charges to call next door, just unlock your phone before  leaving and activate a prepaid account in the host country.  If you’re looking to call home, screw cell plans all together, find a wifi hotspot, (easy to do in most non US countries) and use Skype to Skype for free or perhaps use Skype’s international caller rates which are even cheaper than your carrier.  With free internet connectivity, you’re options are endless as you can send/receive email, Skype, Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, etc… the list is endless and savings beat any other method.  Personally, I’m a big fan of Skype to Skype calling, as the quality is amazing and the price cannot be beat unless your carrier starts crediting your account for international calls.  A small amount of tech savvy can save you big.

10. Knowledge is Power

…and a lower cell phone bill.  Learn as much as you can about what rate plan you’re on, it’s cost, what features you’re on, and those costs.  After adding that up, you get your monthly recurring charges, and after taxes, your monthly bottom line sans any overages or “other” 3rd party charges.  KNOW THAT NUMBER.  It’s your monthly bill, and knowing it will alert you if you see a different (higher) number on your bill.  Know exactly what you’re paying for regarding every item on your bill, and if you’re confused (which is what they want, and you probably are), make it your business to get the answer so you can manage your account, get the product you want, the services you need, and a monthly bill that’s no surprise at all whatsoever.