Last Wednesday, I received a letter from Cellular One informing me that I was entitled to a $15 credit as a result of a court-approved settlement of a class-action billing lawsuit.

Apparently, other customers got the same letter. Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems Inc., which does business as Cellular One in the Washington-Baltimore area, agreed last year to settle a class-action lawsuit to avoid the "uncertainties and high cost" of litigation involving how it discloses to its wireless customers the practice of rounding off bills. As is typical in such matters, the company admitted no wrongdoing.

As I understand it, when a company rounds up your cellular telephone calls, you don't get billed for the exact air time used. For example, a call of one minute and 31 seconds would be billed as two minutes.

Of course, Cellular One claims that rounding up is a legitimate way to bill. "The practice of billing in one-minute increments is common in the wireless industry," the company said in a statement.

I resent being billed for time I didn't use. But that's not what's really bothering me. It's the settlement itself. Since I hadn't been aware of any lawsuit, the promise of $15 sounded okay, at first glance. It's the end of the summer vacation season, and I could use some extra cash.

Then I read the letter more carefully and discovered that the only way to redeem the $15 credit "voucher" was to spend more money with Cellular One. Under one scenario you have to buy something that costs at least $75 to benefit from the so-called credit.

Basically, the conditions of the settlement require that I give them more cash to retrieve money that they took in a questionable practice in the first place.

Now, I ask you: What kind of settlement is this?

I'll tell you. It's a shoddy settlement.

Cellular One says in no less than five places in the letter that the $15 voucher can't be redeemed as cash or as a credit to a current or past-due bill. Instead I have to buy some expensive piece of equipment or order more service.

According to the letter, I have to buy a phone or phone accessory priced at $75 or more. (I love the "or more" part.)

Oh, and the item can't be on sale. Or I can use the $15 voucher toward a new or future renewal contract with Cellular One for wireless service (with a minimum commitment of one year). Please. I already want out of my current contract. I'm very unhappy with the customer service I've been getting from the company.

Finally, I could order an additional wireless feature and get the pleasure of being billed once a month for it. There's "Professional Information Services"--for an extra $12.99 per month I can get information on a selection of 15 topics sent in text messages to my cell phone. For $29.99 I could get "Custom Digital Messaging Plus," which allows callers to reach me through a toll-free number.

This is a settlement? Where's my money?

"This voucher has no cash value," a fact the company had no problem disclosing over and over again.

"There weren't any conditions when they overbilled us," my husband said when I showed him the letter.

"The most reprehensible settlement is when customers have to patronize the company that ripped them off," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.

Cellular One thinks it's all righteous. "The court approved the voucher redemption options, terms and conditions and determined this settlement to be fair and reasonable given the relative strength of the claims asserted in the litigation," the company said in a five-paragraph statement released to me via a public relations firm it hired. The company couldn't be bothered with providing a real, live company executive to answer my questions.

I made several attempts to contact the plaintiffs' attorneys who negotiated the settlement, but no one currently involved in the case returned my calls.

"These kind of settlements are not atypical," said David Vladeck, director of Public Citizen Litigation Group and a visiting professor at Georgetown Law Center. "Some of these settlements are fundamentally unfair because they don't yield a significant return to the customers."

Well, this customer isn't going to take her $15 "voucher" and rush off to an authorized Cellular One dealer, agent or retailer.

The key is to get class members to write and complain that this settlement undermines their rights, Vladeck said.

Now, that sounds like a plan. We all should send a letter right back to Cellular One and complain about the settlement. Write to the firm that handled this case--refer to case No. 96-L-132 in your letter to Carr, Korein, Tillery, Kunin, Montroy, Cates & Glass, Gateway One Building, 701 Market St., Suite 300, St. Louis, Mo. 63101.

I look at it this way: You know the lawyers wouldn't settle for being paid with vouchers. Why should we?

Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice or answer detailed questions about individual situations. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Finding the `Ouch' in Voucher

Because of a court settlement of a class-action lawsuit, customers of Cellular One on or before Jan. 21, 1998, are eligible for a $15 credit voucher. To redeem the voucher however, customers must spend money on Cellular One* in one of three ways:

For a new phone: Toward the purchase of any wireless phone or accessory regularly priced at $75 or more.

For a new contract: Toward a new or future renewal contract for wireless service with Cellular One for at least a year.

To add ongoing features: Toward other additional, optional wireless features such as custom digital messaging for $19.95 a month, or detailed billing at $3 a month, or caller identification for $3.95 a month. "If the customer does not call to cancel the new feature, the service will continue and the monthly charge will apply."

To be redeemed, vouchers:

Must be taken to a Cellular One store or participating agent, dealer or retailer for either of the first two (above).

May not be redeemed as a credit to a current or past-due balance on an existing account or as a payment for prepaid wireless service.

That are photocopies, incomplete, completed incorrectly or unsigned will not be processed.

*or a participating agent, dealer or retailer.

SOURCE: Cellular One