5 Ways to Avoid Cell-Phone Bill Shock

by News Guy on August 23, 2010

(via Consumer Reports)

Today’s multitalented cell phones can easily seduce you into texting, talking, or downloading more than you planned. The result can be hundreds of dollars in unexpected penalty fees.

Some 30 million Americans have experienced cellular bill shock, a surprise spike not related to a change in the service plan. The projection is based on a Federal Communications Commission survey of 3,005 adults conducted last spring. More than a third of that group got burned for at least $50 a month. We think the usual overage charges might be higher still. Based on consumer billing data we’ve seen from Validas, a company that provides wireless bill analysis and optimization services, we estimate the median overage charge to be about $85.

Here are the suggested 5 ways to avoid cell-phone bill shock according to Consumer Reports:

Ask for a break

Request an exception or discount. Carriers say they work to resolve overage problems on a case-by-case basis. One Consumer Reports staffer knocked $175, or 68 percent, off his $255 overage bill and saved an additional $23 in taxes, fees, and surcharges.

Monitor your usage

Depending on the phone and carrier, you can keep track by checking settings, tapping the usage-information codes on your cell phone, or registering with your carrier for online access to your cell-phone account. Try to check your balance at the middle of and three-quarters through each billing cycle, especially in months with unusual use.

Sign up for an overage alert

A few carriers offer them (see Overage charges). For smart phones you can get the free Cell Minute Tracker app from Pageonce, a California software company. It alerts you when you’re nearing the limits of your voice, message, and data allotments and lets you know when you go over them.

Adjust your plan as needed

If you’re bumping up against your limit for voice calls, switch to a higher-minute plan. To find a contract plan that better fits your needs, analyze your current use and the available deals. The website BillShrink searches scores of plans from the four largest carriers free, and Validas searches six service providers for $5; neither searches prepaid carriers.

Monitor and adjust your messaging and data services, too, if they’re metered. Users of iPhones tend to consume more data per month than BlackBerry and other smart-phone users. If you’re with AT&T, the 200MB-per-month package should meet your needs, but heed the alerts. You can add a second 200MB bundle if necessary, or move up to the 2GB plan.

Ask customer service to assure you that a plan change won’t create a new overage charge. That can happen if the old and new plans’ minutes are prorated when a switch is made.

Consider prepaid

Available from the major carriers and from prepaid specialists such as Virgin Mobile, prepaid, pay-as-you-go plans have no overage charges. Instead, you buy more minutes at the regular rate when your account balance runs low or runs out. Or consider a monthly plan with unlimited minutes from a prepaid carrier, which can cost less than such plans from contract carriers.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Merve September 17, 2010 at 8:47 am

Other than the obvious “less-worry-about-control” prepaid options, I think it’s rather absurd that carrier companies do not facilitate their customers with warnings as to going over their prescribed package amounts. Especially regarding the recession we’re trying to shake. I can only imagine that greed has something to do with wanting to milk people for more than they are worth, or in this instance, more than what they initially budgeted for. Even more absurd is the fact that a prepaid service such as strait talk (and I’m using strait talk as an example for no other reason than my own experience. There might very well be cheaper localized carriers, but they don’t have the coverage that my own business needs), can save your average business up to half it’s original expense on minutes alone, without the threat of being hit with an extra unplanned amount of expense.

News Guy September 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm

I agree, it is pretty crazy. I know they’re all in it for the business, but you gotta look out for your own customers too. I’m sure one day things notifications like that will be made commonplace. At least I hope!

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