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Chances are that if you have a cell phone, you also have a cell phone contract. Yes, I know that some of you use prepaid carriers that don't make you sign on the dotted line, but I'd wager that the majority of cell phone users are bound to a carrier for a couple years through a contract. You remember that contract, right? It was that document they made you sign when you bought your phone. Well if you remember that piece of paper, did you actually read it? I'd guess that most people would say no. Now there's nothing wrong with that--I certainly didn't read anything when I bought my first phone--as I'm sure you just figured that beyond the clause where you promise to pay your bill on time, the rest of the contract held nothing but legalese designed to protect your carrier in our overly litigious nation.
Do you read your cell phone contract? Talk back to me below.
But if you still have your contract on file, I'd suggest dusting it off for a good read. It details the obligations you have to your carriers and its obligation to you, some of which may be surprising. Do you know your carrier may owe you a credit for dropped calls, or that you can skip free of service if they raise your rates? A wide, and sometimes wacky, assortment of loopholes, waivers, and promises abound, and they can differ greatly between carriers. Let me highlight some of the best clauses here. But first a disclaimer of my own: carriers' policies are subject to state law, so regulations will vary depending on where you live.
contract says that your cell phone must be compatible with its network. That's no surprise, but the contract also says that whether you buy your phone from the carrier or from someone else "is entirely your choice." Now that's interesting. So if I have an unlocked CDMA phone that supports Verizon's bands, then I should be able to use it as I please and Verizon should activate it for me? That seems logical to me.
On the other hand, Verizon isn't generous when it comes to modifying your handset. Not only does the carrier prohibit you from doing so, but also it says it "may change your wireless phone's software, applications or programming remotely and without notice." Crafty, aren't they?
All carriers may require an advance deposit from some customers before they'll activate service. But their policies regarding what they do with that deposit differ sharply. Verizon will pay "simple" interest on the deposit, but at least in their contracts, T-Mobile
, and AT&T
won't. Also, while all carriers reserve the right to use the deposit to pay outstanding bills, Verizon and T-Mobile won't allow you to do the same. In other words, do as I say, not as I do.
Have you ever had a credit with a carrier of just a couple dollars? If so, pay attention. Verizon won't refund any balances of less than $1 unless you specifically request it. T-Mobile will keep anything under $5 unless you contact them. That's equivalent to coffee and the Sunday newspaper. Meanwhile, Sprint will return any unused deposit, but make sure they have your address. If the check goes back to them, they'll forward it to the "appropriate state authorities." Huh?
To its credit, Verizon does give you some rights if you get a dropped call. If you get disconnected and you're able to redial the same number within five minutes, the carrier will credit you with one minute of service. You just have you notify Verizon of the dropped call within 90 days. Also, if your service is interrupted in your home area and it's Verizon's fault, you'll get a credit for the period of interruption. Just be sure to ask for it within 180 days. The other carriers don't offer such credits, at least not in their contracts. That's just not nice.
Remember that hysterical e-mail
that went around a couple years ago that warned that your cell phone number will be published in a directory for telemarketers? While that may not be true, carriers do have varying policies on your privacy. T-Mobile will list your name, address and phone number only with your consent, while Verizon says it won't do so (apparently at all), nor will it provide subscriber listings to third parties. Sprint, on the other hand, maintains its own "Do Not Call" list. You can register your number by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
All carriers reserve the right to terminate your service if you violate the terms of service, some of which can be amusing. T-Mobile prohibits "sending unsolicited messages or calls," AT&T bans "content harmful or offensive to third parties," while Verizon will cut you off for a long list of offenses. They include lying to Verizon, allowing anyone to tamper with your phone, using vulgar or inappropriate language to its representatives or modifying the phone away from its manufacturer's specifications. So if a brunette tells Verizon she's a natural blonde, she can get her service cut?
While typically it's very hard to wiggle out of your contract without paying an early termination fee, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T will allow you to leave your contract if they raise your rates, modify of the term of the agreement, or if they decrease your coverage area. The change must have a "material adverse" affect on you, though.
This one is particularly good. Are you always on the go? Are you a data hog or a chatty Cathy? If so, you could be in trouble. Sprint says it can "limit or suspend any heavy, continuous data usage that adversely affects our network performance or hinders access to our network." T-Mobile will cut your service or change your rate plan if it determines that your use of service is "excessive, unusually burdensome, or unprofitable." AT&T will get you if your roaming usage exceeds your limit, which is equal to 750 minutes or 40 percent of your anytime minutes, whichever is smaller. It also felt the need to stipulate in its contract that unlimited voice service can not be used for "transmissions that do not consist of uninterrupted live dialog between two individuals." I guess "unlimited" doesn't really mean unlimited.
Finally, I wanted to highlight a few notable clauses that don't fit into the above categories.
Sprint: "We may not waive any Early Termination Fees if you choose to terminate Services as a result of loss or theft of your device." So your purse gets stolen and you pay them?
Verizon: "You agree that you won't install, deploy, or use any regeneration equipment or similar mechanism (for example, a repeater) to originate, amplify, enhance, retransmit or regenerate a transmitted RF signal." So it's your fault you don't get s signal in your home?
AT&T: "AT&T is not liable to you for changes in operation, equipment or technology that cause your Equipment or software to be rendered obsolete or require modification." They render your phone obsolete, but it's not their fault? Interesting.