One Mother's Wake-Up Call

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Cell phones for kids are a hot ticket lately. If you've got a 'tweener or teen in the house, you know this all too well. Either the kid's got a cell phone (and is checking out ads for newer models) or is begging for his first.

While it doesn't have the cachet of the first driver's license or first kiss, that first cell phone has already reached rite-of-passage status. To the child, it's a symbol of responsibility and freedom -- not to mention a fascinating high-tech toy. To a concerned parent wanting a where-are-you-now link, it's nearly as good as a homing implant.

So it rang true when Consumer Reports recently reported that more than a third of 11- to 14-year-olds have their own wireless phone.

But wrong numbers do happen. As the number of cell-toting kids multiples, so do related issues -- possible health risks, an anticipated assault of commercials, increased outsider access to kids. Oh, and did you see this month's phone bill?

Maybe none is of the nightmare proportions portrayed in Stephen King's new techno-thriller novel "Cell" (you don't want to know), but they are problems. Some unexpected, as my colleague Roxanne Roberts discovered after buying her son, Carter, his first wireless phone for his 13th birthday.

"He's getting around on his own more, and we thought he should have his own phone," says Roberts, who as half of the Reliable Source duo in The Post's Style section knows her way around a telephone. Roberts signed up Carter for a Cingular "GoPhone" account -- a pay-in-advance plan that charges 5 cents per text message and 25 cents per call. She set his monthly limit at $10, figuring that should accommodate a teenage newbie's cell phone habit and teach him a little about sticking to a budget.

But within an hour after the account was activated, Carter's new phone erupted with the rapid-fire beeps and buzzes of a couple dozen incoming text messages -- the latest scores from the NFL and scoring possibilities from the online dating service Match.com. By the end of the day, half of his monthly budget was shot from the unwanted texting.

Roberts says she spent an hour on the phone with Cingular customer service trying to find out what was going on. The Cingular rep acknowledged that the text messages were coming from subscriptions to online services the previous owner of Carter's cell phone number hadn't canceled.

"There was a previous owner of this number?" Roberts asked.

"There've been six," replied the Cingular rep.

The revelation stunned Roberts. Potential risks raced through her head. "What if it was porn instead of sports scores?" she asked the Cingular rep. "And how long will it take you to make it stop?"

After the typical go-around consumers often face when calling customer service, Roberts persuaded a supervisor to delete the text charges. But the supervisor said Cingular couldn't terminate "third-party" online services connected to Carter's phone. Her advice: Keep the phone turned off and cancel the subscriptions yourself.


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