In many cases, the companies require you to agree to stick with the service for a specific period — usually one or two years. If you decide to cancel before the time is up, you're required to pay a termination fee that can range from $100 to $200.
I certainly understood this when I signed my daughter Katherine up for Verizon Wireless service back in August. What I didn't realize was how unreasonable the company's representatives would be when I contacted them with what I considered to be a very legitimate reason to cancel her service.
First, a bit of history. During her senior year in high school, my daughter had an AT&T cell phone. Like Verizon and most other carriers, AT&T requires customers to sign service agreements, depending on the calling plan and equipment. I signed a two-year agreement with AT&T but, when Katherine decided that she was going to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., I called AT&T to see if the company offered service there. It didn't. So I asked if we could cancel her plan without a penalty. The answer was yes. End of contract; end of story.
My wife, my son and I had a Verizon America's Choice FamilyShare plan, for which we paid $145 a month plus tax for 1,200 anytime minutes that could be used anywhere in the Verizon network. I called Verizon to see if it offered service in Walla Walla and was told that it was offered through Verizon's "extended network," which meant that the actual service came from a partner carrier but that all the same terms and conditions applied. In other words, for an extra $20 a month, my daughter could have a phone that she could use from college as part of our family plan without having to pay long-distance or roaming charges.
So, in August we bought her a phone, and several weeks later she went off to school.
Trouble is, her phone service in Walla Walla doesn't quite work as expected. Sometimes she gets no service at all, sometimes she gets poor service, and sometimes it works just fine. But when we started getting bills, we noticed that some of her calls were being charged at the 69-cents-per-minute roaming rate while others were included as part of our family plan, as advertised.
When I called Verizon to explain the situation, I was told that we were still bound by the contract and would have to pay a $175 termination fee to cancel the account. I was reminded that I was long past the company's 14-day "worry free guarantee" cancellation policy. I asked to speak with a supervisor, who gave me the same story. I argued that we shouldn't be held to a contract if Verizon couldn't keep its part of the bargain — after all, we were told that it offered extended service in that area — but my arguments fell on deaf ears.
I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that if a company can't give you acceptable service, you shouldn't have to pay, or should, at least, be able to cancel without a penalty.
I then tried a business argument. "Why are you alienating a good customer who spends more than $200 a month (including extra services we buy) with you and will continue to spend at least $180 a month if you disconnect my daughter's line?"
That didn't get me anywhere either. In desperation, I told her that if she didn't let me off the hook for my daughter's plan, I'd downgrade my plan (which is allowed) to reduce my costs by $65 a month. In other words, I told her that I would spend $780 less a year because she wouldn't let me out of a $175 termination policy. Still no luck, so I had her make the change on the spot. I've since increased my minutes because, even though downgrading the account made me feel better, it wound up costing me more in the long run.
I called back to speak with another representative and was told that we could re-assign that number to another family member, but we have run out of family members. The three of us who are left at home already have Verizon service. I was also told that Verizon makes exceptions for military. Perhaps I should have sent my daughter off to war rather than to college.
I called Sprint PCS and was told that they have the same policy. A recent call to AT&T's customer service yielded the same story, despite my good experience with the company this summer. Still, it doesn't hurt to ask.
There is a happy ending, at least for my daughter and me. When I called Verizon's public relations department to ask for a comment on this story, I was told that my case "didn't seem right" and that I would get a call back from someone who could review it. I emphasized that, at this point, I was calling as a journalist, not as a customer, and that I was not asking for any special favors.
An hour later I received a call from a Verizon representative telling me that the supervisor should have allowed me to cancel my daughter's account without a penalty and that she would take care of it. She said that she was letting us out of the contract because Verizon wasn't able to give my daughter acceptable service — exactly the answer I had hoped to hear the first time I called. I told her that, as a journalist, I could not accept special consideration, but she assured me that she was treating me as she would treat any customer. I then asked her what others should do if they get an unacceptable resolution from a supervisor, and she told me that people should ask to speak to a manager and, if that doesn't work, to a director.
In the meantime, if you sign a cellular contract, make sure you don't move out of the company's service area until the contract ends, unless, of course, you plan to join the military. Maybe the Marines should change their recruiting pitch: "The Few, The Proud And The Ones Who Want to Cancel Their Cell Phone Accounts."
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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By Larry Magid