30 Cell Phone Ripoffs You Can Actually Avoid

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Row of cellphones in a store
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Mobile phones are on sale everywhere from Best Buy and the Apple Store to mini-marts and sometimes even airport vending machines. The act of buying one varies just as widely: Buying outright, leasing to own or, less often, leasing under contract. The plans, fees, and other metrics that go into monthly wireless bills are similarly complex, and can make it difficult to tell if you're getting a fair deal. We looked at costs associated with owning a phone or other wireless device and found several hidden ripoffs. If you wouldn't accept these terms when buying a laptop or television, don't be forced into them for a phone.
Verizon Wireless store
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According to a Consumer Reports survey of nearly 90,000 subscribers, nearly half switching providers in the past year saw their monthly bill fall by $20 or more. Another 40 percent saw an improvement in coverage and data speed. But just 6 percent have changed providers within the last year.
Man using cellphone outside
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As The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern told Recode, "There really is no such thing as an 'unlimited' plan." If you have an unlimited data plan and are in a crowded place where many people are using data, providers will have no qualms about slowing data usage. If you're willing to use Wi-Fi and don't do all that much live gaming or streaming, Consumer Reports says a 1- to 2GB data plan should suffice.
Man looking disappointed at his bill
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Unlimited data plans didn't kill overage fees; they just did a better job of hiding them. Verizon, for example, has a rollover data and safety mode that uses data more sparingly to help avoid overage fees. If consumers go over, it costs $15 per gigabyte -- more than a third of the base monthly cost of an unlimited plan and nearly half the monthly cost of a $35 "small" 2-gigabyte plan.
Closeup of cellphone keypad
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There is just about no need for directory assistance when you can search phone numbers online, but AT&T paid a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2016 after scammers added "directory assistance" services to customers' bills and paid AT&T a fee for their help. It pays to check the bill.
Man paying an invoice on his computer
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If you see an odd "monthly charge" or "service fee" on a bill, dispute it. It could be "cramming," which lets scammers place random charges on a bill with a carrier's blessing. It's so common that the Federal Trade Commission has an entire page for consumers who wish to report "cramming" charges.
Facial ID on an iPhone
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Samsung lets users transfer money using an iris or fingerprint scan, or PIN, but not facial recognition. The argument: Criminals could use a photograph of a user's face to unlock a phone. Apple seems to think that's nonsense and has installed Face ID in the iPhone X, claiming infrared imaging and advanced processing create a 3-D model of a face that is safer than Touch ID -- which isn't on the iPhone X. We're with Consumer Reports: "The jury is still out."
Row of customer service agents
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Billing pay issues that require a customer service rep? Verizon will charge $7 and T-Mobile will charge $8 for providing one. It's avoidable by setting up online or automatic payments and costs nothing using the automated system. Humans are more expensive, and telecoms are just doing what they do best: Passing costs onto consumers.
Person choosing a cellphone
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Upgrade to a newer device -- which seems like doing wireless carriers a favor -- and you'll pay for it. Verizon charges $30 to upgrade a phone and thinks it's a deal, since it's not also charging an activation fee. That's somewhat true: AT&T, for example, reserves the right to charge customers $45 for an upgrade. As with activation fees, the best bet is to haggle.
Wireless charging pad
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Seems cool, right? But Richard Fisco, Consumer Reports' head of smartphone testing, notes that wireless charging is a lot slower than standard cord charging. It also means that phones have to have glass backs, which makes them a lot more breakable than phones with metal hindquarters.
Woman holding smartphone with streaming service on the screen
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You're going to pay extra for additional definition on a smartphone screen, but mileage varies on that benefit. For most users, an OLED screen isn't going to make much of a difference in messaging, tweeting, and other mundane tasks. "If you watch a lot of videos and movies on your phone, an OLED could be an improvement," Fisco says. "Compare it to a traditional phone to see if you think it's a difference worth paying for."
Water spilled on cellphone on a desk
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Consumer Reports tests for water resistance -- dunking phones in a few feet of water for 30 minutes, then testing over three days to see if water has crept in and damaged the hardware -- but only Samsung's Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note8, and all iPhones since the 7 have met its standard. Even phones that survive aren't watertight and can still be destroyed by water, though, and most standard warranties don't cover liquid damage despite "water resistance."
Damaged screen on a smartphone
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Roughly one in three users damage phones within the first year of ownership, but that doesn't make insurance a great purchase. Plans charge either hefty upfront costs or monthly fees -- but also typically a deductible for each repair. That can be as little as $29 for an AppleCare screen fix but more than $200 for other repairs. Consumer Reports doesn't recommend the plans, and neither do we.
Woman speaking with a sales representative in a phone store
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Some too-good-to-be-true phone deals require buying a new line of "eligible" services, typically premium plans that are costlier than other options available through the same carrier. Even switching to a cheaper device later may void a discount and force a payment later.
Phone with SIM card out
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Some companies charge one-time activation fees ($25 to $40) each time a phone is activated, and a company using SIM cards may try to charge $25 for a SIM card starter kit. If you own the phone, you can try using an old card to avoid that. If not, try to negotiate.
Buy one, get one free sign
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A buy-one-get-one-free offer gives nothing for free. In some cases, the "free" phone comes through two years of credits on a bill. What it's actually doing is tethering users to a company (and, in some cases, a specific plan) for two years and making sure they don't leave for some other provider.
Shopping for a tablet
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"Free" tablets can be no more a thing than "free" phones. T-Mobile will part with an Alcatel 30 tablet -- that gets paid off through 24 months of credits.
Leasing agreement
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Leasing adds payments of $5 to $40 to a monthly bill and may bring fees for excessive wear. Consumers complain about state taxes on phone leases and dodgy practices such as what Sprint's CEO calls "out-of-term revenue" -- letting leasers go on paying for literally nothing.
Cellphone in an open cardboard box
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Some carriers will charge from $45 to $325 to "restock" a returned phone. Just about the only way to avoid it is to act within a company's return window (for instance, 14 days for AT&T); don't open or unseal the packaging; and try to negotiate the fee away, Consumer Reports says.
iPhone with earbuds
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A bundle of smartphone accessories such as a case, cords, and headset isn't a deal if half the stuff isn't needed, and adding internet and satellite TV service isn't saving users anything if they were happy with the service they had. Sweetening the pot works only if the pot isn't all that sweet to begin with.
Netflix screen on a smartphone
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After AT&T ate DirecTV, every provider wanted something to upsell. Verizon sticks a free year of Netflix into its wireless and FiOS Internet bundles. Sprint tosses in limited-commercial Hulu with its Unlimited plan. T-Mobile will even pay for existing Netflix. All of these perks require signing onto specific plans that may not suit your needs. Look them over first; if the numbers don't add up, walk away.
Row of cellphones in a store
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Wireless providers don't play the subsidy game anymore, but aren't above using the same credit strategy that gives "free" phones and tablets for "discounted" iPhones or iPads. Expect some demands, such as 24 months of loyalty and a $30 activation fee just to get a slight break on old hardware. You're better off finding the same used iPhone or iPad mini online.
Woman texting on the street in London
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Just because a wireless carrier exists abroad doesn't mean the rules of a plan apply there, especially where data is concerned. While many people go into their smartphone's settings and turn off data roaming while traveling (especially in countries where Wi-Fi is stable and widely available), there are other options. T-Mobile offers global data plans with no roaming fees, while AT&T has monthly and day-pass options. A third-party SIM card is another option.
Email inbox on a phone
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Sometimes, it isn't enough to turn off digital roaming or cellular use. On iPhones, for instance, photos attached to emails and iMessages sent as texts can also trigger international charges. Tell a carrier you need an international plan or shut down those features and updates.
Trading in a smartphone
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We'd love to say that trading in an old phone to a manufacturer is simple, but folks who've dealt with the Google Store program have disagreed. Going through a third party site -- while more lucrative -- has disadvantages as well. The general rule of thumb: You'll get more selling a phone yourself than as a trade-in, but stick with a reputable site, and don't be afraid to bark at customer service.
Cellphone cases in a store
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Shopping online is basically a thrift store for tech accessories. Even if T-Mobile says it's selling for 50 percent off, it's actually offering items for cents a month on credit. That's why it talks about credit checks. The Belkin lightning charger selling for $15 with a "$10 discount?" It's $12.50 at Walmart, and an Amazon Basics version sells for $10.
Man scrolling on his smartphone
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Sprint and AT&T have no problem sending a long-form bill showing call details. They'll just charge $2 for it as a reminder no one uses their phone as a phone anymore.
Group of people using their smartphones
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There are federally mandated charges wireless companies are supposed to pay but instead send on to users as line items on their bills, including the Universal Service Fund for people in rural and high-cost areas, or the cost of 911 services. As the Federal Communication Commission notes, fees and taxes aren't required to be passed on, "but service providers are allowed." Verizon passes on the fewest fees and Sprint the most, Forbes says. Still, anyone can try negotiating.
Woman ripping a contract
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Breaking up with Verizon before the terms of agreement expire may cost $175 to $350. AT&T termination fees start at $150 to $325 before knocking off $10 for every month of service. But major providers will often pay up to $650 of an old provider's early termination fee to switch to them, DigitalTrends says. If that doesn't work, complain to the FCC.

Man looking at bills
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There are a whole lot of lines on wireless bills, but very few pertain strictly to service -- and NerdWallet finds taxes vary wildly based on state of residence. In Washington state, for example, wireless taxes make up 25.15 percent of a monthly bill. Move south to Oregon, and that bill drops by $178 a year. Wireless bills also drop significantly moving from Illinois to Wisconsin ($103 a year), California to Nevada ($97), or New York to New Jersey ($90).
Smartphone with a cloud storage app
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There are many options for reliable free cloud storage out there. Why pay Verizon $5 to $10 a month for a service that began in 2013 as "mostly pointless" and by this year had gradated only to "leaky" and lawsuit-worthy.

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