Cells attach strings to student wallets

Campus Times
November 22, 2002

photo by Bailey Porter

Luis Chavez, a sophomore at ULV, has only had his cell phone for one year, but he is already finding the pocket-sized phone useful in case of emergency and to keep track of friends. Cell phones have become an essential tool for many students.

by Jaclyn Roco
LV Life Editor

Like hawks poised to kill, the vendors swoop toward an unsuspecting victim with the question, "How are you doing, miss? Would you mind staying to answer a few questions regarding your present cell phone service?"

While prattling about their "new" service deals, the vendors will entice the possible customer with the words "free" and "unlimited." If they are lucky, the magnetized victim, will stay - and get hooked.

And voila, the attack is over. Averaging around 15 minutes, the usual transaction takes five minutes more than the average caller uses on what has become a college student's best friend - the cell phone.

While the vendors leave with sweet victory, the victim receives a lousy free T-shirt and a rigid contract.

And that is how a victim is duped into paying for things that she is not aware of. Besides paying for a contract, the buyer is not informed of the monthly billing cycle, added expenses and features of the phone among other things.

This scenario is what University of La Verne senior Ayana Moultrie described as her first introduction into the cell phone world.

"It's ridiculous," Moultrie said. "They get high school and college students really good. (We) just don't know anything."

Moultrie said she was sucked into the cell phone nightmare after a vendor working for Sprint on campus made her a good offer.

"It's the same with credit cards," she said. "They say they got this really good deal on free service or free cell phones, and you fill out this application, and then you get this free T-shirt."

After filling out the application, Moultrie received her first glimpse into a vendor's cleverness. "Now we need to check your credit," the vendor informed her.

"They don't mention that first off," Moultrie said. "But they check the credit, and still make it seem that it's okay. Then they say that the cell phone is only free if you only get this particular package plan."

"If you want to get the phone for a one year contract, it's going to be extra," the vendor says. "Sign up for a two year contract, and the phone is free."

But what college students do not realize is that signing a contract attaches strings to your purse or your wallet.

Moultrie said she made the mistake of signing a contract that was not clear to begin with, and now she is stuck.

College students like Moultrie find it especially hard to meet the demands of monthly bills. Most college students live off their paychecks and can only pay off bills when the check arrives.

"It got to the point where I couldn't pay because I got a new job, and I had to wait to be paid," Moultrie said. "They turned the phone off, and wouldn't turn it on."

Finally after months of frustration, Moultrie switched services from Sprint to Verizon.

For Moultrie, who said she can now afford her bills, the service still becomes questionable. On recent bills, extra charges would appear out of nowhere, and balances that were paid for would be transferred to another month, she said.

Sophomore Alexis Carrillo had another learning experience with Verizon. Staying within the limits of the free minutes provided by a service is hard, she said.

Carrillo admitted that her cell phone was a necessity because it is her only means of calling outside of the local lines provided in Stu-Han. As a result, Carrillo said it was not hard for her to go over her given free minutes.

"I think I went over 50 minutes out of like 200 minutes (Verizon) gave me," she said. "They charged $35, and my bill went up to $120, when it should be under $100."

The high bill became a problem for her mother, who also shared the same plan with her.

"I'm the one who predominantly uses all the minutes," Carrillo said.

Diana, who withheld her last name, a receptionist for Sunset Cellular in Los Angeles, said it is not surprising that cell phone users are being charged for extra things. In fact, her branch out of the 16 her company is comprised of, is known for playing with new customers interested in joining Cingular, she said.

And this manipulative practice is not uncommon for other vendors who sell products for other big cellular names like Sprint, Verizon, Nextel and AT&T either.

Diana said that new customers should be wary when they are asked to pay a higher tax than California's 8.25 percent sales tax.

Vendors rip off customers, she said, by charging $30 or more for tax alone on a phone that was supposed to be free.

To hide this practice, Diana admitted that some in her branch would fill out fake invoices indicating that the buyer only paid a regular tax fee on a phone that was bought for the actual price. By doing this, the seller is given a commission fee from Cingular for supposedly selling the phone, plus the added bonus of your "tax" money.

"We buy the phones for however much it costs from the manufacturers, and then we sell the phones for a cheap price or for free," Diana said. "But then we charge tax, and we get to pocket the rest of the money.

They don't actually have to charge you that tax," Diana continued. "Our company gets around $100 per contract for whatever phone we supposedly sell. We get that $100 no matter what."

To make up the difference of buying phones ranging from $400 and more from the manufacturer, Diana said her company tries to make as much commission as possible, mostly out of a customer's expense.

When it comes to one to two year contracts, a vendor can make up to $130 to $170, Diana said.

"A lot of people in sales make a lot of money that you'll never find out about," Diana said.

Paul White, a sales representative for World Wide Com, warns customers to beware of vendors who check your credit.

"If you have bad credit, but it shows that you make good income, a company can do anything to get that from you and say that the money went toward taxes," White said.

White said that he tries to give plans to customers according to their credit rating, but that other companies may charge customers extra money. A poor credit rating will result in a deposit transaction that the customer must pay to qualify for a specific plan, he said.

"Charging customers a deposit for bad credit is like charging interest for the company," White said. "Each company can get $100 for the deposit you have to give. It's like insurance."

Besides watching out for your credit, White also said to beware of false advertisement.

The price of a phone bought without a plan may be hiked up, even if the phone was advertised at a certain price, he said.

With all these things to look out for, it is a wonder why cell phones today have become an essential tool for many.

By looking out for any of the warning signals above, however, a safer understanding of how vendors work may be ensured.