On Your Side: Cell Phone Signups

By: Ryan Duffy
By: Ryan Duffy

Whether you download a ringtone, game, or screensaver, there are hundreds of ways to personalize your cell phone.

In fact, it's a two billion dollar industry in the US.

But consumer advocates are now warning that when you sign on for some services, you may be dialing up more than you bargained for...and it could cost you without you ever realizing it.

12 On Your Side's Ryan Duffy explains.

Jazzing up a cell phone is easy with all the options out there nowadays. An online ad recently caught Alan Coughlin's eye.

"It told me to enter my phone number, and I'd receive a free ringtone," Alan says. "I did so, and my phone rang a minute later with the new ringtone on it."

The new tune was music to Alan's ears until a mysterious fee appeared on his mobile bill.

"I never purchased anything, in my mind."

Alan unknowingly signed up for a ringtone service.

Consumer advocate Michael Shames says new online ads, emails, and cell phone text messages are luring people in. Once you accept that freebie...

"You're automatically charged and signed up for a subscripted service," Shames says.

The information is all in the fine print.

For Alan, it was a double whammy. He's also angry the charge showed up on his cell bill. But that's a common industry practice. Content providers and carriers often partner, giving customers more options for downloads, and the cell company does the billing.

"The phone company will then give a portion of that charge to that third party company and will keep a portion," Shames says.

Providers claim it's a matter of convenience, but advocates say it's ringing up headaches for consumers.

"We've seen a rather dramatic rise in the number of complaints about customers being unable to get these ringtone charges off their bills," says Shames.

Domingo Garcia says he got the run around from his cell company when trying to get charges from a content provider removed.

"They said it was between us and a third party. So we wanted to know who's this third party that's charging us...and they couldn't tell us," Domingo says.

Shames says even if they do give you the company's name, that may not be enough.

"You can't get through to the third party company, or you'll get through to them and say, 'Stop this and take the charge off, reverse the charge', and they don't."

To prevent these costly surprises, you need to ask your cell phone carrier to block any third party charges.

Also, send the text message "unsubscribe" to the content provider to cancel.

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