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Tips: Avoid mobile-phone overage charges

Consumer Reports News: October 17, 2011 02:48 PM

As reported this morning, wireless carriers have agreed to provide free alerts to their customers who are coming close to exceeding their plan limits in voice, text, and data usage. The carriers have up to a year to implement the alerts, though. So in the meantime, here are five tips to help you protect yourself against "bill shock" caused by getting hit with unexpected mobile-phone charges.

Ask for a break
If you’re hit with an unexpected charge, call your company and ask for an exception or discount. Carriers say they work to resolve overage problems on a case-by-case basis. One Consumer Reports staffer knocked $70 off his recent overage bill by showing that he never received the alert that Verizon, the nation’s biggest carrier, claims it sends.

Monitor your usage
Ask your company what tools they currently provide to help you track your usage. Depending on the phone and carrier, you may be able to keep track by checking your phone settings, tapping a usage-information code on your keypad, 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
Some companies, such as U.S. Cellular, top-rated in Consumer Reports’ annual cellular service Ratings (available to subscribers), are already offering free alerts like the ones described today, but not all of them do yet. 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, you may need to 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 Truaxis (previously known as 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. Talk to customer service by phone (don’t make a switch online) to assure that a plan change won't create a new overage charge, which 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 StraightTalk, 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

Jeff Blyskal


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