Telephone services can include land-lines, mobile (cell) phones, and pre-paid telephone cards that allow you to make calls from a pay phone or someone else’s phone line. Generally, these telephone services are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The CPUC has a dedicated website just about telecommunications issues. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also offers a useful telephone guides for consumers.
Discounts and Assistance for Low-Income Customers:
The California LifeLine Program provides discounted home phone and cell phone services to qualified households: https://www.californialifeline.com/en. If your telephone has been shut off—or you are afraid it may be shut off—because you have fallen behind on your bills, and you cannot resolve the problem directly with the utility service, the CPUC may be able to help you restart your services and negotiate a payment plan. You do not need to wait until your services are shut off. Call 1-800-649-7570 for assistance if your phone is in jeopardy of being disconnected. The CPUC website has more information on restarting your phone service or negotiating with the phone company.
Unauthorized Charges and Changes (Cramming and Slamming)
Read your phone bills, landline and cell, every month. Pay particular attention to any unexpected or unexplained increases in cost. If you see a third-party charge that you did not authorize or a change in your chosen long-distance carrier, contact your phone company immediately.
Having an unauthorized charge placed on your phone bill is sometimes called “cramming.” If you don’t recognize a charge or see charges added to your telephone bill without a clear explanation of the services provided—such as a “monthly fee” or “minimum monthly usage fee,” ask your phone carrier about it. If you’ve been assessed an unauthorized fee, ask your phone company to reverse the current charge and all previous unauthorized charges from the provider. You may want to discuss blocking third-party charges altogether from your phone line but understand that there may be cases where you may want a third-party service. If you do decide to buy a service or application (app) that will be billed to your phone, make sure you understand exactly what you are buying and what you are agreeing to pay before you purchase or click “ok.” Test the service as soon as you can and make sure that the amount on your next bill is what you understood you were going to pay.
Before a telephone company can switch a customer, it must first obtain your permission. Having your long-distance carrier changed without your permission is sometimes called “slamming.” If you’ve been slammed, ask your phone company to switch you back to your preferred carrier and reverse any unauthorized charges related to the change in service.
Whatever your problem, keep a list of everyone you’ve spoken to about the issue. Get their name and identification number and note the date of your call and what the employee agreed to do.
If you can’t resolve the issue with your carrier contact the CPUC.
Cell phones are nearly everywhere and used by most everyone. As with any consumer service, shop carefully, understand what you’re buying, and make sure what you are billed is what you agreed to pay. Here are some tips and traps:
- Choose the right plan. Do you need phone service only, or do you want to be able to text and search the web? Do you need unlimited service, or will you be satisfied with a certain number of minutes, messages, and data service? Do you want a long-term plan or a monthly/pay as you go plan?
- Find out how long you can try your phone’s features, service, and coverage area, before you can cancel without paying an early termination fee.
- Find out about roaming charges, including when they apply and what they cost.
- Find out about music, games, and other applications (apps) that are available, including how much they cost and how you can block unauthorized charges.
- Find out about other charges, fees, and taxes, so you know up front what your service will really cost each month. Ask to see a sample bill for the plan(s) you’re considering.
- Unlimited data plans: Make sure you know what limitations the carrier may impose on its “unlimited” plan, including any speed or quality reductions that may go into effect once you’ve used a certain amount of data.
- Offers to pay early termination fees: A cell phone company may offer to pay any early termination fees to get you to switch. But you may have to wait weeks for reimbursement and fill out paperwork to become eligible. Read the cell phone contract carefully and make sure you know the complete deal before you switch.
- Comparison Pricing: Comparison pricing may not accurately reflect the real difference in costs. The new plan may seem cheaper but also may offer reduced services.
- Free Devices: These sound like a great deal, but may not be, especially if the only way to get the free device is to buy a more expensive plan than the one you really need. Also, keep in mind that if you cancel your plan before it’s run its course, you will probably have to pay the balance due on the “free” device.
- No Money Down / 0% APR Promotions: Consumers with poor credit may not be eligible for these plans.
Prepaid Phone Cards
With a prepaid phone card, you dial a toll-free telephone number and enter a Personal Identification Number (PIN) usually printed on the back of the card. Charges will be deducted based on the amount shown on the card’s package. There may be a charge imposed at the start of the call and usually additional charges are deducted from the card for each minute or part of a minute of usage.
These cards can be very useful, but you should shop carefully and make sure you get the right card for your needs. Here are some tips:
- Find out how much it costs to use the card. There is often more to the cost of using a prepaid phone card than the per minute charge. Some cards deduct multiple fees such as connection charges, toll-free number charges, and others. If you don’t know how these fees work, you may discover you’ve gotten a lot less phone time than you thought.
- Check the expiration or use-by date. Make sure the card will not expire before you’ve gotten your money’s worth. If the card does not have an expiration date it should be good for at least one year.
- Make sure the card can be used for multiple calls. Some cards are limited to a single call no matter how many minutes it is.
- Don’t buy a card that is not in its original package or whose PIN number is visible.
- Start with a small dollar denomination and see if you like the card before buying a large dollar version.
- Ask the store where you’re buying the card if the store will refund the card if the service is unsatisfactory.
To File a Complaint:
If you’re having trouble with your telephone provider, the CPUC recommends that you try to resolve the problem with your provider first; if that fails, you can file a complaint online with the CPUC, call 1-800-649-7570, or send a letter to:
California Public Utilities Commission
505 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102–3298
If you disagree with the outcome of your informal complaint, you may be able to appeal or file a formal complaint. More information is available at http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/complaints/.
You may want to also file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), online or by phone at: 1-888-CALL-FCC.
If you suspect you’ve been a victim of cramming, you may also want to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). You can also file a complaint about cramming with the California Attorney General.