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The Infuriating Cell Phone Racket

If you're not already angry with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint -- here's some ridiculous news to raise your righteous ire.

If you're not angry with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint -- America's four national wireless providers that reportedly control 90 percent of the market -- then here's some ridiculous news to raise your righteous ire.

Perhaps you'd be interested to know about one of the most outrageous cell phone scams? It's simple: Charge customers for being forced to listen to 15 seconds of unnecessary voicemail instructions reminding them how to leave a message after the beep. According to New York Times technology writer David Pogue, if Verizon customers leave voicemails or check their messages twice a day, the mammoth New Jersey-based telco takes in around $620 million. In return, you lose wasted hours of your life and have to pay for it.

Speaking of Verizon, have you heard about the representative who refused to shut down a dead man's service, even though his daughter produced a death certificate and needed the account closed so settlement of his estate could proceed? Or the rep who tried to collect an overdue $308 bill from customer Al Burrows by threatening to, and I quote, " blow your muthafucking house up"? Do we need to even talk about AT&T's various controversies, from censoring Pearl Jam to allegedly helping the National Security Agency unlawfully monitor the American people's communications?

The telco giants' latest disgrace, according to a recent Federal Communications Commission report, has been given the egregious name of "bill shock" (PDF). Which is a misnomer, actually: it's certainly not shocking to find, as the FCC explains, that "30 million Americans -- or one in six mobile users -- have experienced...a sudden increase in their monthly bill that is not caused by a change in service plan." It's even less alarming to discover that "nearly half of cell phone users who have plans with early termination fees (ETFs) -- and almost two-thirds of home broadband users with ETFs --don’t know the amount of the fees they’re accountable for."

"In January, we sent letters to the major wireless providers asking the rationale for their ETFs," FCC spokesperson Rosemary Kimballl told AlterNet. "While the business model of subsidizing phones by the ETFs is the carriers' choice, our position is that the ETF charge must be made clear to the consumer when he is signing the contract. And this does not seem to be the case in many instances."

It is the kind of obscure legalese the industry is known for. Their contracts are dense with clauses that no self-respecting human should have to wade through, just to place a call or send a text. ETFs are a particularly blatant insult to wireless customers, who can't leave an underperforming carrier (and that's really all of them) without forking over hundreds of hard-earned dollars. In fact, AT&T just nearly doubled its $175 early termination fee to $325 in May. That cold, capitalist logic is built specifically for bottom lines and earnings reports, not for flawless customer service. ETFs are financial shackles to mediocrity, and they're just the start.

According to Wisconsin Democratic Senator Herb Kohl, the telcos have fortified their industry monopoly with other scandalous pricing. Between 2006-2008, the cost of sending and receiving a text message rose 100 percent. The average American consumer pays approximately $500-$600 a year for wireless service, which is practically more than any other developed nation. Of course, iPhone addicts -- who are chained to Apple's exclusive contract with AT&T until the probably inevitable Verizon contract arrives in 2011 -- pay around twice that annually in various subscription fees. This in spite of the fact that AT&T, Verizon and Sprint continually rank among the worst in the nation when it comes to customer service. Or that such early termination fees are arguably illegal, depending on which judge you ask.

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