Cellphone Contracts: Hard to Get off the Hook

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007

Fed up with dropped calls and a string of defective cellphones, Corey Taylor said he became irate when he learned he'd have to pay $175 to get out of his long-term contract with Verizon Wireless. So he resorted to a rather extreme measure. He faked his own death.

After reading on a blog that wireless companies would cancel the contracts of deceased customers, "I thought, 'What have I got to lose, besides a cellphone I despise?' " Taylor said. The Chicago consultant fashioned a fake death certificate and had a friend fax it to Verizon Wireless, his carrier. He thought he was in the clear -- until the company caught on.

"In the end, I forked over the money," Taylor said. "But I bet I sent a definite message about how much people hate being strapped to a cellphone that doesn't work."

Most cellphone owners find themselves committed to two-year service contracts with wireless companies, facing hefty fees for an early escape. But as customer satisfaction with these firms continues to slide, consumers are taking more drastic actions to shed their contracts.

Such desperate attempts are "compelling evidence that the wireless carriers have failed to address the desires of the market," said Phil Doriot, a partner with consulting firm CFI Group of Ann Arbor, Mich., which has studied customer satisfaction for major cellular service providers. "No other industry could get away with being so inflexible."

Cellular companies charge up to $250 to release customers from a contract, a stipulation protested by an increasing number of cellphone users. Consumers filed more complaints about cellphones than any other industry for the past three years, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus; contract issues consistently rank among the top three gripes, along with billing and service problems.

The number of contract-related complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission more than doubled from 2003 to 2005. And thousands of customers were expected to pay to cancel their cellphone contracts with other service providers this summer after the iPhone was released exclusively with AT&T service, according to mobile communications research firm M:Metrics of Seattle.

Sandy Loehman, 27, of Winchester, Va., said she managed to talk her way out of her Verizon Wireless contract, avoiding the $150 fee by reading the fine print on her bill. In April, she noticed the price for receiving a text message from an international carrier had increased 5 cents. Most wireless companies will cancel a contract for free if a billing change negatively affects a customer.

"I argued with five customer-service reps and used a lot of big words," Loehman said. After she got hold of a supervisor, she threatened to complain to the FCC, the Better Business Bureau and the state's attorney's office.

"Eventually, I think they just didn't want to deal with me anymore," she said.

Most carriers offer deep discounts on expensive cellphones to attract customers. Cancellation fees, they say, help offset those costs.

Some carriers have softened their policies. Verizon Wireless now prorates its cancellation fees so customers pay less if they are near the end of their contract. Sprint Nextel lets customers change their service plans up to six months after they sign their contract. All the major carriers say they waive cancellation fees for military personnel going abroad and for customers moving to poor coverage areas, but they ask for proof of the move.

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