If blogger Harold Guenthner hadn’t read the fine print of his first cell phone bill, he would have paid thousands in unnecessary fees over the years.

There are always added charges to contend with after setting up a new service: service charge, processing fee, licensing fee, bill processing charge, etc. Arguing with anyone at your cell phone or cable company about fees is pointless, but…if you review your bill carefully and find they’ve overcharged you for one of their bona fide fees, you should definitely state your case.

A few years ago, when it finally became affordable for the rest of us to own smartphones, I decided to get a couple for myself and my partner. I wanted to leave the provider I was using at the time, so I set up new service with a different company.

I scoped out a few companies, found that they didn’t vary too much, settled into setting up my new service, and ordered some fancy new phones. I chose a plan that best suited our needs and budget and made the plunge.

Now, I’m annoying, and I don’t like to just choose an option online, pay with a card, and be done with it. I like to get somebody from the company to talk to me and explain all the charges to me very clearly (which they don’t totally love, btw). That way, when I get my bill, there will be no surprises.

There were surprises—about 35 of them. For some reason, the bill I received was for about 20 percent more than the final monthly billing price I discussed with the person who set up my new account. I looked the bill over thoroughly, but could find no real explanation other than some exorbitant fees and taxes added on at the end.

Of course, the first thing the person from the phone company said to me when I explained my situation is that everyone must pay the fees and taxes, blah blah blah. But one of the fees added onto my bill was for $15 and change. That seemed a little fishy to me. This person did not seem to care, though.

So I hunkered down, poured a glass of water to keep my whistle wet, and prepared for total war with an ill-prepared supervisor who had either lost a bet or had some bad karma to clear up, because now they were gonna deal with me: a guy who carved out a portion of his day to get to the bottom of this billing fiasco.

I don’t want to give the impression that I was intentionally unpleasant or difficult. I have worked in the service industry many times and I know how terrible it is to have a customer chew on you because the company you work for is taking a few liberties with their wallet. I had no grudge with the individual, I just intended to make them listen and feign interest. I maintained my cool the entire time, but stood my ground. After all, I only wanted some answers.

I got answers all right. And the supervisor I was speaking to was astonished at those answers as much as I was. So much so that she didn’t believe it when I first told her. She had to hear directly from the source. Let me explain:

The fees and taxes I was being charged were set at a rate much higher than they were supposed to be. I was being charged three and four times the percentage rate for no apparent reason. I found this out by listening to a recording the company had set up to explain these charges to pesky customers—like moi. The supervisor played the message for me, then I made her listen in. To get through the boring part, let me just say that she and I did some very elementary arithmetic and found that I was right and the company was wrong.

My first thought after getting off the phone (which lasted no less than an hour and 15 minutes) was “I wonder how many people are being charged too much and just never think to look or ask.” It troubles me to think this cell phone service provider is pocketing excess taxes and fees. My bill was overcharged by $35. Multiply that by a few thousand, then a few million, and see how high that number climbs.

In the interest of keeping people from overpaying for their cell phone service, I am sharing this story and implying a piece of advice. Look at your bills every once in awhile, and you might just find a surprise or two awaiting you.

Some general guidelines:

  • Ask for paper bills at first. You can always switch over to paperless later.
  • Before contacting the company, take a few deep breaths, stretch, do some yoga, or do anything that will put you in a patient state of mind.
  • Make a list of questions and keep a calculator, a pen, and some paper handy to write down names and information while you are questioning the associates.
  • Last thing: Make them read their fine print to you.

This may seem like a small thing, but I have been with the same phone company for several years; if I hadn’t made that call when I did, I would have paid them an extra $1,600 by now. I can guarantee you that I need that money way more than any cell phone business does. And so do you.


Harold Guenthner is a freelance writer and editor. Come up and tweet him sometime @HaroldGuenthner.

Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under our control. We cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.

While we hope the information and opinions offered by the author in this article are useful, it’s only intended to provide general education and it’s not intended as legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation.

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