Top 7 Cell Phone Gripes

You've heard it millions of times. It's the 15-second canned recording that follows a cell phone voicemail greeting and tells you what to do at the beep.

And it's become the latest thorn in the side of the American wireless industry.

Last week, New York Times personal technology columnist David Pogue stirred outrage online and from customers when he launched a "Take Back the Beep" campaign on his blog targeting the message.

"I've been ranting about one particularly blatant money-grab by American cell phone carriers: the mandatory 15-second voicemail instructions," he wrote.

Pogue argued that the instructional message is nothing more than attempt to keep customers on the phone so that they can charge them for additional minutes.

By Thursday evening, several carriers set up dedicated forums to handle the influx of messages from "Take Back the Beep" campaigners.

Pogue acknowledged that there are codes to bypass the message if you are a caller and options to eliminate it if you are the customer, but he said they are just patches. The better solution would be for the carriers to get rid of them altogether.

The carriers themselves argue that these messages are intended to help customers navigate the voicemail menu and that they already offer ways to delete or workaround the message.

"It's about giving our customers and the people who call them choice and control over their technology," said Verizon Wireless spokesman Tom Pica.

Roni Singleton, a spokesman for Sprint, said, "The voicemail message exists because we have to assume that there may be customers and users that require as much instruction as possible on how to use the voicemail."

Both said their companies adequately inform customers about how to work around the message. But that hasn't stopped the blogosphere and cell phone customers from keeping the campaign alive.

In his blog, Pogue said, "I'm also hopeful that, with the stupidity of these instruction messages brought to the public consciousness, customers will be reminded how irksome it is every time they leave a message — that it'll bug them from now on — that it will become a canker that won't go away until the carriers make it so."

Here are six other "cankers" that won't go away.

Text Messaging Fees

In 2009 alone, 3.3 trillion text messages are expected to fly around the world, according to Gartner Research. That represents a 600 percent increase since 2007.

Many consumers have unlimited text messaging plans. But those who don't face exorbitant charges if they exceed their limits. Since 2005, every major carrier has raised the price of transmitting an out of plan text message from 10 cents to 20 cents for reasons no one understands.

Earlier this year, one Wyoming family was hit with a nearly $4,800 phone bill when their 13-year-old daughter averaged about 288 messages a day.

In June, senators took the wireless industry to task for increasing text messaging fees. In that hearing, one researcher testified that it costs wireless providers three-tenths of 1 cent to transmit a text.

So why does it cost the consumer so much more than that?

"This is a head scratcher to consumers because these rising costs are not at all related to the pricing incurred by the carrier," Joel Kelsey of Consumers Union told ABC News in June.

In their defense, the cellular industry contends that texting bundle plans have gone down 60 percent in price in recent years, and most consumers choose bundles.


On a land line, when you make a call, you pay for it. If you receive a call, you don't.

But that logic never carried over to the cellular industry. When it comes to phone calls and text messages, both the sender and the receiver have to pay.

Comparing the U.S. system to the European system, consumer advocates say it's a rip-off.

"When you receive a call in Europe, only one person pays for the call. If I receive a call, I don't pay for the minutes," said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor with Consumer Reports magazine, adding that here, we're double-charged.

Cellular carriers say they offer plans, such as Verizon's Friends and Family and T-Mobile's myFaves, that give customers unlimited minutes to call their closest friends and family members.

Verizon spokesman Tom Pica told ABC News that the business model in this county is based on the premise that those who use the service pay for the service.

"Each carrier involved in the process recoups the costs associated with sending and receiving that message or the call over the networks they build and maintain," he said.

International Roaming Rates

Another issue consumer advocates say is heating up is the cost of international roaming.

Art Neill, an attorney with the non-profit Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego, said his organization has received calls from phone customers who received $1,000 bills for calls they didn't even make while overseas.

"If you have the phone on in another country, just because you don't pick up the phone, and have it for emergency purposes, you'll be charged," he said. It depends on the carrier, but some charge roaming fees if someone just leaves you a voicemail message while your phone is on.

He also said that he's heard local reports from San Diego customers who have been charged roaming rates because the cell phone company mistakenly thinks they have been in neighboring Mexico.

They're about 15 miles from the border, he said, but the cell towers are relaying false information. As a result, the burden is on the customer to contest the charge and prove their location.

The cell phone carriers say that on a case-by-case basis they're willing to work through contested charges with customers. Many offer special travel packages and have roaming agreements with other countries, so they also urge travelers to consult with them before leaving the country to determine the plans that work best for them.

Data Services

Neill also said charges for data services are among the worst examples of nickel and diming going on right now.

Cell phones -- even the simple flip phones that don't include the bells and whistles of a Blackberry or iPhone -- let users do a whole lot more than send and receive calls and text messages.

Depending on your plan, sending pictures to e-mail addresses, streaming video or audio and accessing Facebook or MySpace can cost a pretty penny. But the average consumer can't easily predict how much it will cost them, he said.

One ringtone download here and a few minutes of streaming video there can add up.

"You're getting a lot more multimedia content traveling through the phone," Neill said. "If you don't have an unlimited plan you could be hit pretty bad."

This also applies to wireless cards that let customers use the cellular networks to connect to the Internet.

In an extreme example, an Illinois man racked up a $27,000 bill from AT&T for streaming a Chicago Bears game from his laptop while on a Caribbean cruise.

Using his laptop, a wireless card and Slingbox device that let him watch the game via an Internet connection, he tuned into watch the Bears battle the Detroit Lions.

But, charging him by the kilobyte, at the international rate, the company said he was roaming for the three hours it took to watch the game.

The man dug up the documentation to prove that he was not at sea but actually in port at Miami when he was watching the game, but the company stood firm. Even after he pled his case to 14 different employees, they would only reduce the bill to $6,000.

Ultimately, however, after the Chicago Sun-Times ran his story and brought his case up with AT&T, the company dropped the charges.

Third-Party Fees

Ringtones, wallpaper, games. Sometimes you want them on your cell phone, sometimes you don't. But consumer advocates caution that fees charged by the third parties that sell those products to the consumer and then collected through the cell phone bill are another problem.

In some cases, the fees end up on the consumer's bill through misleading means. A scam wending its way through Facebook earlier this year tricked users into signing up for a cell phone service by asking them to provide their cell phone numbers to receive the results of an online IQ test.

Typing in their cell phone numbers unwittingly signed them up for cell phone services that started at $9.99 a month. But getting those charges off a cell phone bill is no easy task.

"They're having a huge economic benefit from it," said UCAN's Neill, adding that removing the charges is "more difficult than it should be. They ultimately control the phone bill."

Teenagers are an easy target, he said, as they might not even know that a certain download or game will result in a monthly charge.

For their part, cell phone companies say that they have implemented safeguards to protect users.

An AT&T spokeswoman said that when customers are considering purchasing downloadable options, such as ring tones, wallpaper, games or other content, they must opt-in twice -- and take two actions -- to indicate that they want to receive the services. Third-party providers must make pricing and directions for unsubscribing clear to users, the spokeswoman said.

If customers want to dispute charges, AT&T said it reviews complaints and makes billing adjustments on a case-by-case basis.

A spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless said that it has similar safeguards and reviews billing issues as they arise with customers.

Cell Phone Subsidies

If you go out and buy the new iPhone 3GS, it will cost you $199 (if you get the 16 GB version). But AT&T buys the phone from Apple for $400.

Like many carriers, AT&T entices customers with lower-priced or free phones if they agree to a two-year contract (depending on the carrier, the contract term could be different).

But it turns out it's not such a sweet deal after all.

"One of the biggest [issues] are these free and discounted phones," said Consumer Reports' Blyskal. "We've done work that shows those phones, you actually pay for them. It's built into the service charge."

So though you pay $200 initially, you pay the remainder each month with your service bill. But even though you eventually pay off the phone, your monthly bill never goes down.

ABC News' Elisabeth Leamy contributed to this report.