Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sneeky (Not Cheeky) Bastards

I try to keep my blog on track, but whenever I get info on hidden cellphone fees, I figure folks like me want to know

HAVE YOU TAKEN A good look at your cellphone bill lately? You just might be getting hit with some wacky fees that can really add up over time.

Case in point: Cingular Wireless will soon start charging customers for not carrying around a hip new phone. Starting in September, customers will pay $4.99 per month for using older TDMA and analog cellphones as the company phases out that technology and replaces it with GSM. In other words, not being cool could cost you an extra $60 a year. (This affects 8% of their customers — about 4.7 million subscribers.)

Also See
Ditching Your Cell Contract

Fact is, no matter which provider you use, you'll encounter plenty of miscellaneous taxes, fees and surcharges. "Cellphone companies are almost as creative as credit-card companies at finding new ways to charge people," says Beth McConnell, director for the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocate. From 2002 to 2004, consumers paid more than $2.5 billion in early-termination fees alone. They also can add 20% or more to your monthly bill, according to Consumer Reports.

Many charges — including activation fees and termination fees — are well advertised, but others require some digging through the fine print to unearth. Here are four sneaky cellphone fees to watch out for:

New Handset Fees
So you finally decide to pull the trigger and get that RAZR handset. Be prepared to pay a fee for your switch — in addition to whatever you pay for the phone. "It's under the auspices of upgrading your account information," says McConnell. The good news? This is one charge you may be able to get removed with a quick call to customer service.

Service Provider Charge
Cingular $18
Sprint/Nextel $36 (if customer is receiving a discount on a new — as opposed to secondhand — phone)
T-Mobile No charge.
Verizon No charge.
Verizon No charge.
Data from cellphone companies.

Premium Content Fees
"One of the remaining cases is tonight's lucky case." When consumers hear that pitch on the popular game show "Deal or No Deal," they can send a text message with their guess — Case 1? Or maybe case 6? — for a chance to win $10,000.

It may seem like harmless fun, but it isn't cheap. On top of the fees you'll pay to your cellphone provider for sending a text, many shows charge a so-called premium content fee, says Edgar Dworsky, editor of Mouse Print, a consumer advocacy site. The fee could be per message (celebrity gossip show "The Insider" charges 49 cents; "Deal or No Deal," 99 cents) or per month (fans of reality show "Big Brother" cough up $5.99 to subscribe). Avoiding these fees is simple: Read the fine print before you whip out your phone.

Data Storage Fees
You've got your mom, your boss, your dentist and pretty much everyone who matters to you on speed dial. The thought of losing all those important numbers — as well as any appointments or messages in your phone — is nothing short of horrifying. Lose or break your phone, and you're lost. But paying for a cellphone backup service is a pricey alternative to the 'ol paper Rolodex. Back-up plans from Sprint and Verizon are $2 a month, while Cingular charges $5.

To sidestep these fees, consider Yahoo Mobile Services' Contact Back-Up. It works with SyncML-compatible phones from Cingular and T-Mobile. The service is free; however, you'll pay a small fee (about 25 cents per 25 contacts transferred) for the data transfer if you don't subscribe to your provider's data plan. (For more on picking a data plan, see our column Which Data Plan Is Right for You?)

Roaming Fees
Thought roaming fees went the way of the dinosaur once national calling plans were set in place? Think again. "Nationwide doesn't necessarily mean nationwide," warns McConnell. You'll still pay roaming if you're in an area where your provider doesn't have many, or any, service towers. Consumers in Crescent City, Calif., for example, are always roaming if they opt for service with T-Mobile. Depending on your provider and your plan, roaming fees could be as high as $1.95 to $2.95 per minute.

Most phones let you control your ability to roam, so check your menu for "roam modes." Set your phone to "network only" to prevent roaming. Sprint/Nextel also offers a call guard feature, which keeps your phone ready for incoming or outgoing calls, but warns you when roaming charges will apply.

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