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Cell phone service can hold traps

Imagine a freshman student, Britney from Bend, just out of high school and starting at Portland State.

Of course, it would be totally uncool to not have a cell phone. Britney finds that easy. At various places on campus, smiling gentlemen stand at tables, ready to sell her cell phone service. The gentlemen are reassuring.

She learns she has two choices. Put down a substantial cash amount or sign a one-year contract. No problema. Sign right here. One should read the fine print but Britney is in a hurry. The salesman is also in a hurry. In a few minutes, Britney has a cell phone for only $19.95 a month. Britney’s initial shock comes when she gets her first bill. Kathleen Cushing, attorney and director of Student Legal and Mediation Services, strongly advises students to examine carefully their first bill.

Britney finds her $19.95 bought her very few included anytime minutes. In some plans it can be as few as 20 minutes a month. Even a $40 plan may include only 300 minutes. Incoming minutes are not free, and, unfortunately, she gave out her number to a lot of people.

Britney’s first bill lists an activation fee of $40, something glossed over when she talked to the salesman. Her bill contains some options she didn’t realize she was signing up for, like call forwarding, phone insurance, text messaging and long distance.

Britney finds it very difficult to pin down the party who can do something about her complaints. Cell phone service operates through a maze of levels. The service provider may have hired a company to handle its cell phone business. That company may have hired another company to handle sales. That company hired sales people. It was one of these end-of-the-line people that Britney dealt with. She didn’t get his business card. Calls to the other three levels result in getting shunted back.

Britney can resort to Cushing’s office for help but Cushing warned it’s crucial to do that when the problem first appears, not after it has been sliding along for some months. The longer a situation goes on, the harder it is to reconcile. Cushing’s office, located on the fourth floor of Smith Memorial Center, can help with letters, calls and other actions.

Two of the common annoyances are cramming and slamming. Slamming is the illegal practice of changing a consumer’s telephone service without permission. The legal office has a helpful guide on what to do if you’ve been slammed.

Cramming occurs when you get hordes of incoming calls from companies which got your name from some source. You may have filled out a contest entry form or entered a direct mail sweepstakes.

Cushing has some solid advice for staying out of the trouble in the cell phone world. She has located a Web site which compares companies and services. The site is Cushing’s office also has a guide on where to go when there’s a problem, ranging from contacting the company that sent the bill to the Federal Communications Division and the Oregon Attorney General’s office.

Above all, Cushing advised, be vigilant. “With other utilities, it’s not quite the concern to continually check your bill. With the cell phone service, you should.”