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What I Learned from My Cell Phone Saga

As in all marriages, my husband and I do things together. So it came as no surprise that our cell phonebatteries died simultaneously. Busy myself, I assigned him the task of buying new ones. "Get thee to the Verizon Store," I commanded.

A couple hours later, he returned, not with batteries, but with two new cell phones -- and two new two-year contracts. The Verizon clerk had scoffed that our phones were so hopelessly out of date that nobody made batteries for them anymore.

I realized then that I had sent an innocent fish swimming into the jaws of a shark. My husband, who had over the years merely taken possession of my old phone whenever I upgraded, knew nothing of cell phones or contracts. The Verizon clerk had made him feel technologically senile, and so he swallowed the no-batteries story without a quibble.

In fact, his phone was about eight years old and maybe due for an upgrade. But mine, at three years, was a mere toddler and worked just fine. It could make calls, send text, take photos and offered games, sports scores, weather info, movie listings and other on-the-run info. True, it wasn't a smartphone. But it wasn't a dummy either. If it were a high school senior, it probably could have scored in the mid-500s on the S.A.T.s. Worse, the replacement, which cost $30 after a $50 rebate, was horrible. Its buttons were teeny and unsuitable for my fat fingers. And, without going into details, trust me when I tell you that the top row of the keyboard was inaccessible to fingers larger than toothpicks. What happened to my old phone? My husband had tossed it in a bin to be donated to battered women's shelters.

Well, that was a worthy thing to do so I limited my yelling and castigating to a half hour, instead of the customary week. And I tried to be a good sport. But I couldn't make the damn thing work. Every time I tried to dial or text, the numbers and letters came out wrong. And the screen was unreadable. And no batteries? Give me a break. The more I thought about Verizon's tricky ways, the angrier I grew. This phone was going back!

At our local Verizon store, I learned -- after slapping salespeople around a bit (metaphorically speaking, of course) -- that the no-batteries story was maybe, they admitted, not entirely true. It was just that Verizon itself didn't sell batteries. Whether I could still find one for my three-year-old phone, they weren't sure. Learning that, I plunged into the battered women bin like Greg Louganis. My old phone was right on top, identifiable by its scratches and dents. "Take this back," I told one of the clerks, handing her the new phone.

Well, not so fast. There was a little problem.

A $35 restocking fee.

Yes, there it was on the sales receipt. Verizon accepts returns (within 14 days) but charges you an outrageous $35 restocking fee. I hadn't made one call on the new phone, but Verizon didn't care. Apparently, once my DNA was on it, the company could no longer resell it. Or so they said. I stomped out of the store with both phones and called my husband (which I managed to do on the new phone only after several tries) to yell and castigate some more. "I'm sorry," he wailed.

My next stop was an outfit called Batteries Unlimited. The clerks there laughed when I told them the no-batteries story. "Of course, there are batteries," said one guy. "Your phone isn't even that old." The one for my cell cost $32, but I could return it no questions asked (and no restocking fee) within a week if, as one clerk put it, "You just want to use it to make trouble with Verizon."

Twice more I visited the Verizon store, trying to get them to waive the fee. After all, I had been a customer for more than a decade and a steady payer for three lines. I accused Verizon of misleading my spouse with the no-battery story. I suggested that he was ill, weak of brain and easily victimized. I said things like "$35? C'mon!" They told me that once I had touched the phone, they couldn't reuse it. "C'mon," I repeated. "If that's true, where did all the used and refurbished phones come from-- storks?" Besides, the trend is going the other way. Both Best Buy and Apple have dropped most of their restocking fees.

In response, the Verizon guys tried to sell me a smartphone. And chump that I am, I considered it -- even though I would pay a couple hundred more for the thing, plus an extra $30 a month for data, plus the bleeping restocking charge. Should I really reward Verizon with that much business?

So in bitterness, I ate the restocking fee and kept my old reliable. But here's what the experience taught me.

  1. Don't send an inexperienced person to buy even the most insignificant cell phone accessory at a carrier's store.
  2. Don't buy a cell phone for another person, at least not unless you've measured his or her fingers. It's a pretty personal product. That's what my husband learned.
  3. Ignore salespeople when they mock your phone for its age, lack of features or stodgy style. There's such a thing as appropriate technology. We don't all need to post every thought on Facebook or download apps that identify animal tracks or tell you when it's safe to surf off of Melbourne, Australia.
  4. Don't buy anything you're not sure of or you'll end up paying the $35 fee, which Verizon (and other cell phone carriers) shouldn't but do charge you.
  5. Don't believe a word they say. Yes, Virginia, there are batteries.
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