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Cell phone complaints that get your money back

If cell phone bills send your blood pressure boiling, here's the most important tactic to keep in mind.

Don't get angry: Complain.

Merely complaining isn't enough, of course -- you must complain effectively. So before you do, make sure you set aside a solid block of time to deal with the problem. Getting a refund from a cell phone company is no trivial matter. While there are no sure-fire strategies for getting wireless firms to say “I’m sorry,” some strategies work better than others. You’ll find them below.

But first, I must tell you this shocking truth: Unlike land lines, cable companies and many other industries, the cell phone industry is largely exempt from government mechanisms for resolving consumer disputes. In other words, consumers really are at the mercy of their mobile companies. If you want to know why your service is bad, advertisements are misleading and bills are often a surprise, there's your answer. The biggest piece of advice I’ll give involves changing that bogus structure. But first, more practical matters.

In a recent "Sneaky Fee Alert," I wrote about handset upgrade fees charged by some cell phone companies. It works like this: You decide to stay with your mobile provider, upgrade to a new phone and think you've got a good deal, but two months later a $36 fee is slipped into your bill. Not surprisingly, the story elicited a tidal wave of complaints about cell phone companies. Many readers urged me to investigate strategies for gaining refunds.

Here's what I found.

The mobile industry is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. That's the only agency companies like Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Cingular really have to answer to. So when you have a problem with any of them, you should complain to the FCC. The agency has a pretty easy online form to fill out, located at its Web site.

The complaint is forwarded to the company involved. You should know, however, that the FCC doesn't follow up on individual complaints. Perhaps that why the number of complaints filed with the FCC is shockingly low. The FCC takes in about 1,500 wireless complaints a month, according to its most recent report. That's about as many complaint as I took in with my blog.

I suspect the lack of complaints is a reflection of the lack of efficacy on the FCC’s part. People don’t see the point of complaining if they’ll not going to get redress. An official I spoke to at the agency pretty much conceded that. He did say, however, that a flood of thousands of complaints could inspire the agency to action. So click away.

While the FCC is really your only formal avenue for complaints, there are a host of other strategies you can try, and a host of other agencies to contact. A fresh pen and a book of stamps might come in handy.

More places to complain

If you feel there is a clear Truth in Advertising violation, you can try to complain to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has an extensive set of telecommunications-related consumer tips on its site. Unfortunately, I've been told that mobile phone complaints are almost always redirected to the FCC, so your time is probably better spent contacting other agencies.

The agency you should be able to complain to is your state utility board (sometimes called "public service commission.”) This is the agency that settles land-telephone line disputes, water and electronic billing issues, and the like. Each state has a different office; there's a great state-by-state list at

While state boards currently have no jurisdiction over wireless carriers, a flood of complaints there could stir political action. Also, it could be habit forming.

Cell Phone Users Bill of Rights

For years, consumer advocates have been lobbying for "Cell Phone Users Bill of Rights" laws in state legislatures around the country, with California and Massachusetts leading the way. Central to these laws is a measure that would grant state utility boards jurisdiction over wireless carriers. The boards would be instructed to resolve complaints, and have enforcement powers, such as the ability to levy fines. As you might imagine, wireless firms have pushed back hard against these Bill of Rights laws, so far, successfully.

So far, only Connecticut's legislature has managed to give its state utility board a measure of jurisdiction over wireless companies, and even that is limited. Still, it's a start. Beginning this year, Connecticut residents can complain electronically to their state utility commission at its Web site.

The state is currently compiling complaints and will release a report early next year. Hopefully, the next step will be doing something with those complaints. Once again, a flood of complaints could motivate the agency and the legislature to act.

The next place to turn is your state's attorney general office. I've found that consumers have the most luck when working through the state's top law enforcement office. Many have sections or units devoted entirely to resolve consumer complaints. While the state AGs have no direct authority over wireless carriers, they can bring lawsuits against the firms. Moreover, they can generate a lot of negative publicity, so I know companies like Cingular and Verizon take their calls. Here's an easy way to find contact information for your state attorney general. Be sure to select "State Consumer Protection Office" from the drop down menu.

Remember, half the state attorneys general in the country are eyeing the state’s governor’s office, so top cops in those states are doubly motivated to resolve your complaint and make a friend.

Call Congress

While we’re on the subject of politics, writing to your local Congressional representative might be more effective than you'd think. Particulary during election season. Mileage varies widely, of course, but each federal representative has a set of case workers who take complaints at the district office and follow up with the appropriate federal agency. The FCC is more likely to listen to your Congressman or woman than you. You might get back your $36 and then be asked to donate $50 to the campaign. But you can always say no.

Next, take a copy of the letter or e-mail you've written and send it to the Better Business Bureau. I've seen mixed results from filing complaints with the BBB, which has no real censure power, because participation by companies is voluntary. But it doesn't hurt. The BBB does keep a record of resolved and unresolved complaints, and companies do tend to make some effort to avoid a negative BBB file.

Finally, of course, you must work directly with the company you feel has cheated you. Despite all these steps, the reality is, wireless carriers often get to be judge and jury for their own complaints. They have your money, and they get to decide if they're going to return it. So know you are entering a kangaroo court.

That said, plenty of Red Tape readers report good luck dealing with wireless carriers. Robert Bell of North Carolina reports that he hadn't noticed the $36 handset upgrade fee Sprint levied on a recent bill -- and he says he wasn't told about the fee at the stor. After reading my last entry on the topic, he called Sprint, and a phone rep relented, saying ""I was able to pull a few strings and we're going to take that charge off for you."

The direct route is best

Of course, other readers haven't had such good fortune. So here's some advice on effective calls to customer service representatives.

First: Make sure you are talking to someone who can actually refund charges on your bill. Many companies are moving that authority higher and higher up the reporting chain, says Deirdre Cummings, a cell phone users' advocate at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. There's no sense getting into a debate with someone who can't help you anyway. Ask if they have the right authority. If not, ask to speak with someone who does.

Second: Hang up. Not rudely, of course. Just excuse yourself, and redial. Within moments of starting the conversation, you will know if the person you're talking to is cooperative and sympathetic, or hostile. If the conversation isn't going well, hang up and call again. Keep trying until you get someone who's having a good day and is more likely to be helpful.

Third: Be informed and specific. I know you want to just call up and say, "I hate you, I hate you all, you're all cheaters." That's rarely effective. But if you have the bills in front of you, and you can point to specific charges and make your case thoughtfully, you stand a much better chance.

Finally: Avoid the sneaky fee in the first place by finding sales reps you trust. Here's one vote for consumer loyalty. Don't be enticed by the cheapest advertisement in the biggest storefront window. Go to a smaller store, find someone who doesn't talk to you like a used car salesman, and keep going there. It doesn't matter what brand of phone you have; what matters is the integrity of the individual sales clerk. If you find an honest cell phone sales rep, you won’t be surprised by the big number at the bottom of your cell phone bill. Reward honest reps with your loyalty. Avoiding surprises really is more important than getting the absolute cheapest price.

There are far more details on the right way to complain about cell phone bills on Consumers Union's cell phone users page,

Still, you might end up getting an answer you don't want to hear. And once again, I'd urge you not to get angry, but to complain. This time, call your state legislator and insist that he or she support a Cell Phone Users Bill of Rights for your state.

The only way to really get us out of the fix we're in is to design a system that makes the cell phone companies answer to someone other than themselves. But for now, we're left with the random system we have. That being the case, I'd like to hear from Red Tape readers about their success stories for getting refunds or credits from wireless carriers. Is there a sample letter you've drafted with language you feel was particularly effective? A telephone call script you wrote for yourself that counteracted the script the customer service rep had in front of them. Sound off below; the best answers will be the subject of a future column.