TIME Regulation

More Than 350,000 Customers Have Asked AT&T for a Refund After Bogus Charges

New York City Exteriors And Landmarks
A general view of the exterior of the AT&T store in Times Sqaure on February 21, 2013 in New York City. Ben Hider—Getty Images

Here's how to request yours

Hundreds of thousands of AT&T customers have requested refunds for bogus cell phone charges since the telco reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission last week to reimburse consumers, an FTC official told TIME Wednesday. In total, 359,000 individuals have sent in claims to the FTC seeking refunds for unauthorized charges that appeared on their cell phone bills in a practice known as “cramming.” Through cramming, third parties are able to issue unwanted, recurring charges for things like love tips and horoscopes to cell phone users.

Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, said the response from consumers was one of the largest the agency has ever seen. The only case with a larger number of claims that she could recall was a 2012 settlement with Skechers over deceptive marketing for one of its shoe lines, which garnered close to half a million consumer complaints. “We expect this to be a lot higher,” Rich said.

In total, AT&T has agreed to pay $80 million in refunds to customers for cramming charges. The telco giant will also pay $20 million in penalties and fees to the 50 states and Washington, D.C., and a $5 million penalty to the FTC. At the time of the settlement, an AT&T spokesman noted that the company was the first in the telco industry to stop charging customers for premium SMS messages in late 2013. The FTC is currently suing T-Mobile over the same issue.

It’s not guaranteed that all the people who have issued claims will actually receive refunds. An independent claims administrator will review the refund requests to determine if they are valid. “I’m expecting that most of the claims are going to be valid, but if they’re not valid, there will be a way to determine that,” Rich said.

Customers who think they were a victim of cramming can file to claim a refund until May 1, 2015.

TIME Regulation

AT&T to Pay $105 Million Settlement Over Extra Charges on Customers’ Bills

Settlement follows allegations that T-Mobile also engaged in hiding bogus charges in customers' bills

AT&T will pay $105 million to settle allegations brought by the Federal Trade Commission that the wireless carrier unlawfully billed customers for extra charges on their cellphone plans. The practice, known as “cramming,” involves charging customers $9.99 per month for unwanted features from third parties like ringtones, text message horoscopes and love tips.

According to the FTC, AT&T received 1.3 million customer complaints about the bogus charges in 2011 alone. That same year AT&T changed its refund policy so customers could only be reimbursed for two months’ worth of faulty charges, the FTC claims. The charges were listed under a line item called “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions” on customers’ bills, so many did not know they were coming from third parties.

AT&T will offer refunds totaling $80 million to customers who paid cramming charges over the years. The company will also pay $20 million in penalties and fees to all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as a $5 million penalty to the FTC.

“This case underscores the important fact that basic consumer protections – including that consumers should not be billed for charges they did not authorize — are fully applicable in the mobile environment,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a press release.

AT&T stopped billing people for premium SMS content in December 2013. The company says it was the first in the industry to end the practice. “While we had rigorous protections in place to guard consumers against unauthorized billing from these companies, last year we discontinued third-party billing for PSMS services,” AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said in an email.

The FTC has been especially focused on bringing penalties against telecom and Internet companies over the last year. T-Mobile was accused of similar cramming practices in July, but the wireless carrier is disputing the claims in court. Apple and Amazon have also faced FTC allegations that their app store policies allowed children to easily rack up massive charges of in-app purchases on their parents’ devices.

MONEY Customer Service

3 Industries That Desperately Need Customer Service Makeovers

Chimpanzee on a telephone
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

Comcast is hardly the only company that should be doing some soul searching and commit—not only with words but actions—to making customer service genuinely better.

Because the state of customer service has been bad for so long, and because we’ve heard many times over that some or another big initiative would improve customer service dramatically only to have little or no impact, we’re skeptical about the effectiveness of any broad campaign supposedly crafted to address age-old customer grievances. Nonetheless, it was good to see Comcast’s recent announcement that a long-serving executive named Charlie Herrin had been named as the company’s new senior vice president of customer experience. “Charlie will listen to feedback from customers as well as our employees to make sure we are putting our customers at the center of every decision we make,” a message from Comcast president and CEO Neil Smit explained on Friday.

Read between the lines and it sure looks like Comcast is acknowledging that in the past, customers haven’t exactly been top of mind when it comes to company decisions. That’s no revelation to consumers, of course, who have routinely dinged Comcast for terrible customer service. In 2014, Comcast “won” the annual Worst Company in America competition as voted by Consumerist readers, the second time in recent years it has nabbed that dubious honor.

While it’s unclear what Herrin and Comcast will do to improve customer service, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one, which Smit did more squarely when he said, “It may take a few years before we can honestly say that a great customer experience is something we’re known for. But that is our goal and our number one priority … and that’s what we are going to do.” To which the consensus reaction among consumers is … it’s about damn time. Followed by, we’ll believe it when we actually see real,meaningful change.

To be fair, it’s not just Comcast that’s sorely in need of a customer service makeover. Here are three entire business categories that are regularly bashed for not putting customers’ needs first on the agenda.

Pay TV & Internet Providers
Current Comcast competitor and likely merger partner Time Warner Cable is also a regular contender for the worst service title, as are other pay TV-Internet providers including DirecTV and Verizon.

Among the complaints are that there is a lack of true competition in the category, because roughly three-quarters of Americans have exactly one local choice for a high-speed Internet provider. A survey published this summer indicated that more than half of Americans would leave their cable company if they could, and nearly three-quarters said that pay TV providers are predatory and take advantage of the lack of competition. Among the most hated pay TV practices that consumers would love to see changed are promotional rates that are replaced by skyrocketing monthly charges, frustrating and time-consuming run-ins with customer service reps, and bundled packages overloaded with channels and options the customer doesn’t want (let’s add smaller packages and a la carte channel selection, please).

Wireless Providers
The good news for cell phone users is that customer satisfaction is on the rise, increasing 2.6% according to the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The bad news, however, is that while we’re happier with the actual gadgets (from Samsung in particular), satisfaction with the companies providing our cell phone service—including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint—remains stagnant and below average.

Plenty of other studies also show just how frustrated and dissatisfied consumers are with wireless providers nowadays. A vote-off at Ranker.com, for example, placed AT&T at the top of the list of “Companies with the Worst Customer Service.” Among the many problems consumers have with wireless providers is that choosing a handset and data-minutes-texting package is absurdly complicated, with countless permutations, obfuscations, and mysterious add-on charges. This past weekend, a New York Times columnist presented a painstaking step-by-step analysis of why the $199 price advertised for the new iPhone 6 is a joke—because by the time fees and monthly upcharges are tacked on, upgrading to the new phone will easily run more than $600.

“Wireless service has always been one of the most complex purchases a human can possibly make,” Eddie Hold, a wireless industry analyst with market research firm NPD Group, summed up in a Consumer Reports story last year. “It’s always been horrific.”

Banks
Number 3 on the Ranker list of companies with the worst customer service, just below AT&T and Time Warner Cable, is Bank of America. Another study, from 24/7 Wall Street, used customer service surveys to put Bank of America in the #1 spot for its Customer Service Hall of Shame, and two other banking institutions, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, are in the top (bottom?) 10. (The study factored in ratings for these institutions’ banking and credit card services.)

What may come as a surprise—a sad and ironic one, at that—is that customer satisfaction with banks is apparently at a record high. The 2014 J.D. Power study on U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction indicates that big banks and regional banks have made some strides in terms of making customers happier (or less disgusted) with their service, and that overall bank scores are higher than they’ve ever been since the study has been conducted. Yet the J.D. Power study shows there’s a long way to go: The most common reason given for switching banks is poor customer service, and millennials, minorities, and affluent consumers stand out as being particularly dissatisfied with today’s banks.

“Even with record high satisfaction, there are some banks that fall far short in meeting customer needs,” J.D. Power’s Jim Miller said via statement. “It is easy for banks to become complacent. To stay at the top of their game, banks should focus on those customers who are not satisfied. And consumers should keep in mind they have the opportunity to shop banks to find the right combination of services, products and fees to meet their needs.”

What’s your pick for the company with the worst customer service? Tweet us at @MONEY with the hashtag #unhappycustomer. Here’s what readers have already said. Add your nomination, and we may publish your feedback in a future post.

Related:
5 Packages That Could Replace Pay TV As We Know It
How to Pick a Bank

MONEY Television

5 Packages That Will Replace Pay TV as We Know It

cutting the cord
Igor Markov—iStock

The traditional cable plan is dying. Here's what's going to replace it.

If you need proof that cable providers are feeling the heat from cord cutters, look no further than AT&T’s new U-Verse package. Marketed as an online exclusive, the plan includes broadband, a small lineup of channels, HBO (including HBO GO), and a full subscription to Amazon Prime (with both streaming video and free shipping included)—all for $39 a month. The message is clear: “Keep paying for TV, and we’ll throw in some of the web services you were thinking of leaving us for.”

If might seem strange for a cable provider to subsidize its competitor’s products (and you’d be right), but AT&T’s latest offer reflects just how desperate cable companies have become to keep their subscribers. The old pay-TV model is dying, and it’s being replaced by a slew of more consumer-friendly ways to watch the tube. As we edge closer to the end of cable as we know it, it’s time to look at five new packages that are stepping in to fill the void.

The Oh-God-We’ll-Do-Anything Package

That’s essentially what AT&T is now offering. By discounting the same web services most of their cord-cutting customers are likely fleeing toward, the company is trying to keep anyone they can on the cable bandwagon for just a little while longer. It sounds like a good deal, but cable refugees should read the fine print. AT&T is only offering the $39 price for your first year on the service. After that, the plan’s price is likely to skyrocket, making this package a bit of a bait-and-switch.

Re/Code’s Peter Kafka succinctly summarizes the logic behind AT&T’s newest product, writing that cable providers “[would] rather have subscribers paying a small fee than none at all, but they’re also telling themselves that those subscribers will ‘trade up’ ” to a more expensive plan. But as Kafka points out, it’s a gamble, and giving subscribers a sampling of cable competitors might not be the best way to ensure they stick around.

The Discount Cable Package

Having hundreds of channels sounds nice, but which channels does the average watcher actually need? The networks? Local sports? Maybe HBO? If that’s your answer, a growing number of cable companies are offering packages that offer exactly that, and nothing more, at a discount price. Comcast is selling internet, local channels, and HBO for $49.99 a month. (Comcast might be feeling ambivalent about this plan, since, as Re/Code notes, the company apparently stopped promoting it, but interested parties can still find the deal here.) Verizon has an almost identical plan for $50, and AT&T is offering its aforementioned discount plan at an even lower price.

The catch? Verizon’s deal is for one year only, and Comcast promises just 12 months of its “Internet Plus” plan at the introductory price. Once that year runs out, subscribers may find these discount plans are yet another ploy to keep cord-cutters on board and gradually reconvert them to costlier options.

Cable for Cord-Cutters

It might sound like an oxymoron, but that appears to be exactly what Sony is trying to do with its yet-to-be-released Web TV service. The tech giant has already signed a deal with Viacom to carry 22 of the company’s channels, including MTV and Comedy Central, and plans to ultimately stream an even larger selection of networks exclusively over the internet.

However, instead of using this new transmission method to shake up TV offerings, the Wall Street Journal reports Sony is planning to put together a traditional cable-like package with roughly 100 channels and a comparable monthly bill. According to Viacom and others involved with the project, Sony plans to lure would-be cable quitters using a new, more powerful user interface that promises to make media consumption of all kinds more intuitive and enjoyable.

The Un-Cable Provider

If T-Mobile has become the un-carrier for wireless service by rejecting typical industry practices, Dish seems to be doing the same thing for cable. The satellite provider is planning to launch a new Web-TV service as well, and like Sony’s offering, it wouldn’t require any setup or installation fee. But according to the Journal, Dish is going even farther than Sony by building its Web TV package around a leaner selection of most-watched channels—all for a lower price than current pay-TV plans. Dish has already partnered with Disney to build out its content lineup, and is required by that agreement to also carry 10 of the top 30 channels when the service debuts.

A Hodgepodge of Streaming Web Services

For many TV fans, ditching cable for the Netflixes and Hulus of the world is already the status quo. Cable providers may not let customers pick and choose which channels to receive, but through a careful selection of streaming services, including free ones like YouTube and Twitch, TV addicts may have stumbled across the next best thing. This alternative is looking even more attractive ever since HBO announced in September that it was ‘seriously considering’ offering HBO GO to those without cable plans as a standalone product. Combine online HBO with a growing number of cable-less sports options, and the very idea of single package TV service may become increasingly old-fashioned.

MONEY Tech

How to Cut Your Wireless Bill Down to Size

stack of phone bills
Christine Balderas—Getty Images

Cell phone carriers are battling for your business by cutting prices, ditching contracts, and offering to pay your fee to switch. Act fast to lock in your savings.

If you’re unhappy with your cell phone service—and really, who isn’t?—now might be a unique time to either renegotiate your contract or move to a new carrier.

Your window of opportunity may be short, however, as carriers have reached a crescendo in an escalating battle over prices and plans.

The mobile business started to change about a year and half ago, when T-Mobile first said it would ditch contracts and stop subsidizing phones.

In April, after some tit-for-tat between companies, T-Mobile said it was getting rid of its data overage charges and doubled the data that consumers were allotted, among other changes, and offered to pay the often-steep switching fees carriers can charge to break contracts.

AT&T responded by lowering some of its package prices and debuting a new line of no-contract plans. Verizon last month began offering a new $60 plan that previously would have cost users $90. Both companies also offered deals involving data shared by a family of users.

Then, last month, Sprint changed its offerings to include more data usage than its rivals were delivering at the same price. T-Mobile countered with a low-price starter plan of $45 that comes with 2GB of data. And with the iPhone 6 launch on the horizon, carriers are trying to lure in new business—or keep existing clients.

The result of these changes? Savings can be dramatic.

James Pillow, 41, of Orlando, Fla., was lured recently to switch from AT&T to T-Mobile’s $50 unlimited text, talk, and data plan (which limits users to 1GB of data over its 4G network).

Pillow, president of the sports apparel company FanCastle.com, says he had been spending $98 a month on cell phone bills and didn’t want to constantly worry about extra data usage. Now his bills are $57. He had evaluated smaller companies, but says he was concerned about the reliability of their coverage.

“Since I travel with my job and with my family, it made sense to chose a national company with a national tower network for better coverage,” Pillow says.

To best take advantage of the offers, you need to go through the complicated math, as cell phone carriers notoriously make their packages difficult to compare.

Also, the best plan for you depends on how much data you want, whether you already own a phone and the number of users tied to your contract.

Here’s how to evaluate the offers:

Study Your Bills

What if you merely think you’re getting a bad deal? To know for sure, take the last six to 12 bills from your current service and see what you really use, says Jon Colgan, who runs a service called Cellbreaker.com that helps consumers break their contracts.

Ask yourself: How many minutes a month do you use the phone? How much do you text? How much data do you consume?

Pay attention to the fine print. A $100 plan doesn’t necessarily mean your bill will be $100. To know what your charges will actually be, you can go to a website like MyRatePlan.com or Whistleout.com to sort out what options you have within the parameters you’ve set.

Negotiate First

Changing plans isn’t always necessary, says Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based industry analyst. The first place to start is with your own carrier. Make a simple, friendly phone call asking for a better deal.

“Don’t go in as an adversary. Go in as a partner,” he says.

The typical customer can expect to see their rate drop by 20% to 30%, Kagan says. If you have a particularly poor deal for your usage pattern, like paying per text when you’re a serial texter, you should be able to save far more.

Make the requests annually, Kagan says, rather than waiting for the end of a contract.

Shop Around

Your business could be worth something to a competitor, and without penalties, moving could be in your best interest.

“The ideal person to take advantage of this is someone whose commitment has ended,” says Northeastern University finance professor Harlan Platt.

That’s what Holly Johnson, 34, of Noblesville, Ind., did to find a good deal for her cell service last year. Johnson, who writes the ClubThrifty.com blog, switched her husband’s phone for the second time in two years, from Verizon to a local discount carrier to Republic Wireless, a carrier that relies on the use of WiFi to control costs.

Johnson says the bill is now $25 a month for a plan that includes unlimited talk, text and data, while the previous Verizon bill topped $100 a month.

One warning for consumers is that even though some carriers have limited-time offers to offset costs you incur for changing plans, there may be other hidden charges. Platt warns that carriers now try to lock in consumers by selling them phones on a payment plan.

Instead, you can go to a retail website that sells prepaid phones, like Amazon.com, and purchase one that will work on the company’s network that you’ll be using. That will ensure you’re a free agent and can move to another carrier of there’s a more tempting deal.

“There’s nothing special about AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon,” Platt says. “They provide a commodity. What consumers need to do is make those phone calls and get the bills down.”

TIME Gadgets

iPhone 6 Wireless Plans Compared

Over at Yahoo Tech, Rob Pegoraro has taken up the unenviable task of comparing iPhone 6 wireless plans from major carriers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

This was all a somewhat simpler endeavor back when a phone cost $200, you picked a minutes/data/text messages plan, and signed a two-year contract. But newly-added pricing plans have saddled up alongside traditional pricing plans, resulting in a far murkier melange of minutes and megabytes.

The assumption with this exercise is that you’ll be buying a base-model iPhone 6 and will need two gigabytes of monthly data. All of these plans include unlimited minutes and text messages and, aside from network quality, your biggest decision is whether or not you want to be able to use tethering. Tethering lets you share your phone’s data connection with another device such as a tablet or laptop. It’s good for road trips and other instances where you’d get a cellular signal but wouldn’t have access to an open Wi-Fi network.

If you don’t care about tethering:

  • Verizon can be had for $1,640 over two years
  • Sprint can be had for $1,680 over two years
  • T-Mobile can be had for $1,730 over two years
  • AT&T can be had for $2,120 over two years

If you want to tether:

  • T-Mobile can be had for $1,730 over two years
  • Sprint can be had for $1,920 over two years
  • AT&T can be had for $2,120 over two years
  • Verizon can be had for $2,360 over two years

These figures don’t take into account network quality in your area, family plans, equipment trade-in bonuses, taxes or other stuff like that. Each carrier offers a trial period, though, so make sure to exercise your right to return your phone if you’re not happy with it.

Check out Pegoraro’s post for more info on the various plans and pricing schemes.

[Yahoo Tech]

MONEY Apple

iPhone Orders Start Today: Here Are the Best Deals

The new Apple Inc. iPhone 6 is displayed.
What everyone is drooling over right now: Apple's new iPhone. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

iPhone 6 pre-orders start Friday, and carriers (and some retailers) are fighting tooth and nail for your business. We've compiled the best deals of the bunch.

Preorders for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus begin on Friday, and that means every major carrier, and even a few retail chains, have special deals on the new iDevice. We’ve collected them all below so you can snag the best ones.

Verizon

Verizon Wireless is offering what might be the most attractive promotion for customers who haven’t upgraded their phone in a while. The company promises a $200 gift card—the price of an entry level iPhone 6—to anyone trading in an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. That’s compared to the $60 Apple will give you for an iPhone 4 in good condition.

AT&T

Don’t have an old iPhone? No problem. AT&T will give new and existing customers a $100 bill credit when registering a new iPhone for service, provided they do so by September 30 and sign up for the AT&T Next plan. Next sells the phone to customers through installments, allowing them to upgrade again in the next 12 or 18 months, depending on the monthly installment they choose. New iPhone buyers who pick Next can also get $200 off an iPad (as long as the iPad is purchased with a 2-year wireless agreement). Finally, the carrier says it will buy your old iPhone for up to $300 and apply that credit to a new iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus.

T-Mobile

America’s most iconoclastic carrier is promising to beat any iPhone trade-in deal offered by AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint. Find a better value for your old phone than T-Mobile is offering, and they’ll match that deal and give you a $50 credit toward your bill. Plus, switch from your old carrier to T-Mobile and they’ll also give you up to $350 per line to get you out of your old contract.

The company also just announced that certain models of its phones—including the iPhone 6—will be able to make calls and send texts over Wi-Fi. And for frequent flyers, any plane with Gogo Air Wi-Fi will give free access to T-Mobile users starting September 17th.

Sprint

Sprint has introduced a new plan for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus customers that offers unlimited talk, text, and data for $50 per month. Buyers can also jump on Sprint’s own leasing program, iPhone for Life, which offers unlimited everything plus a new iPhone every two years for $70 a month (assuming you pick the base model iPhone 6). If you’re switching from a competitor, Sprint will give you another hunk of cash, up to $350 per line, to pay off your contract or current device. The company has also “struck back” with their own trade-in price-match promotion, and vows it will beat any trade-in offer from another major carrier.

Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club

The big-box giant is cutting prices on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus out of the gate. CNET reports that Wal-Mart is selling the 16GB iPhone 6 for $179—a discount of $20. The iPhone 6 Plus will get the same discount on September 19th. Sam’s Club locations will give an addition $2 off both phones’ prices.

Radio Shack

It’s still in business (for now), and buyers who put their faith in “the Shack” will get a free $50 iTunes gift card with any iPhone purchase. And yes, they’ll buy your current phone from you as well.

Target/Apple

These two retailers aren’t offering any special deals on the iPhone 6—each has the standard $199 carrier-subsidized option (and Apple also offers a no-money-down option for AT&T Next customers)—but both are taking preorders and will give you some money for your old phone. Not a whole lot of money, mind you, at least compared with other options. But, if these are the most convenient stores for you, they’re at least a one-stop shop for trade-ins and preorders.

Related:
The Apple Store Is Now the Last Place You Should Buy Your iPhone
Why Only Apple Has What It Takes to Disrupt Our Wallets

MONEY

3 Ways to Get Online When Your Internet Is Down

Teen using laptop, tablet and smartphone
Dina Marie—Getty Images

What to do if your internet service cuts out? Here are 3 ways to prepare so you'll always have a way to connect.

Early Wednesday morning, a massive Time Warner Cable outage left customers across the country without internet access. While the cable company reports most service was restored by 6 a.m., data from downdetector.com, a website that tracks internet outages, showed nearly 10,000 complaints at the height of the blackout. Time Warner services about 11.4 million high-speed internet customers nationwide.

So what do you do if your internet goes down and you absolutely, positively need to get online? You can’t just run to Starbucks in your pajamas if the outage hits in the middle of the night, as this one did, so the best strategy is to plan ahead. Putting one of these backup methods in place ahead of time will keep you connected the next time your ISP decides to cut out.

1. Tethering. As any smartphone user knows, wired internet isn’t the only internet available. As long as you have a working cellular data connection, you can transfer your phone’s internet access to your laptop or desktop computer via a method called tethering.

Both Android and iOS phones can tether, although the costs may differ. The only option for iPhone users is to purchase a tethering plan from your carrier, which can add around $20 a month to your bill. On Android, it’s possible to tether for free by installing third party apps, but carriers may add a charge if they notice increased data usage. For more, check out these iOS and Android tethering guides.

2. Mobile Broadband. Mobile broadband is similar to tethering in that you’re using cellular data to get your computer online. But instead of through your phone, it works via a separate device that provides a mobile internet connection, generally by generating a wifi hotspot.

One advantage to mobile hotspots is that many offer prepaid plans. For example, Verizon offers plans for its 4G LTE Jetpack that allow users to buy as little as a week of service at a time. Another service called Karma provides pay-as-you-go internet for $14 per gigabyte. That means if your internet cuts out unexpectedly, you can jump on your hotspot’s wifi for a relatively small fee. However, the devices themselves can cost around $100 for the initial purchase.

3. Public Wifi. If all else fails, there’s always mooching off Starbucks or other free wifi locations. Apps for Android and iOS provide maps of publicly available wifi hotspots that can work in a pinch. But most people don’t know their internet or cell provider might also provide a network of wireless hotspots.

Optimum, AT&T, and other ISPs provide maps of their wifi locations. In some cases, access is included in your pre-existing internet or cell service contracts. In other cases, wifi access might require an additional subscription. Services like Boingo also offer a mixture of free and paid-wifi hotspots, and map apps to help locate them.

 

TIME wireless carriers

The Best Family Smartphone Plan

Family Plans
Stephen Simpson / Getty Images

If you’re paying a large cellphone bill for a large family, then you’ve no doubt noticed all the ads on TV and the Internet about the latest, greatest “family plan” offering huge discounts for families of four or more. Every carrier has a family plan, and yes, some of them are solid deals.

But as you can imagine, there’s fine print to every deal. Joining a family plan is harder than it sounds, and you might need to put up a lot of cash up front first. Here are all the details on each of the major carriers’ family plans, fine print included.

Verizon

Verizon’s most affordable family plan is called MORE Everything with Edge. It offers a family of four unlimited talk, unlimited text and 10GB of data for $160 ($15 per line x 4 + $100 data access). That price doesn’t include fees, taxes and data surcharges, which could add another $10 to $20 to your bill per month.

There’s a catch, however: Verizon’s Edge plans require you to surrender your two-year phone subsidies. If you’re a current Verizon customer, you can join an Edge plan with your own phone when your current contracts expire. But you’ll have to pay full price for phones from that day forward.

AT&T

AT&T’s most affordable family smartphone plan is called Mobile Share Value. Like Verizon’s plan above, it also offers unlimited talk, unlimited text and 10GB of data for $160 ($15 per line x 4 + $100 data access). Fees, taxes and data surcharges are extra.

AT&T’s Mobile Share Value plan has the same limitations that Verizon Edge plans do: You need to surrender your two-year phone subsidies. If you don’t already have AT&T compatible phones, you’ll need to buy the four at full price.

Sprint

The pricing of Sprint’s Unlimited Framily Plans is a bit complicated, as your price per line decreases as you add new ones. For a family of four, Sprint’s Framily plan offers unlimited talk and unlimited text, but just 1GB of high-speed data per line, for $160 total ($40 per line x 4). Larger families save more – the cost drops by $5 per line with each additional line until you hit $175 for a “framily” of seven ($25 per line x 7). Fees and taxes are extra, but there are no data overage charges. Sprint throttles your speed when you hit your max, instead.

Sprint no longer offers contracts, so the only concern with switching is obtaining the four or more Sprint-compatible phones you’d need.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s new family plan, which became available July 30, is called T-Mobile Simple Choice. It offers unlimited talk, unlimited text and 10GB of data (2.5GB per line) for a total of $100. With T-Mobile, the first line you activate costs $50/month, the second $30/month and then $10/month for each line thereafter. Fees and taxes are extra, but there are no data overage charges. Like Sprint, however, T-Mobile throttles.

T-Mobile no longer offer contracts, either. You can purchase new phones at full price, or make a down payment and have the remaining cost added to your monthly bill in equal monthly payments.

Which family plan is best?

If you look simply at the raw plan numbers, T-Mobile has the best deal for a family of four. Plus, T-Mobile is willing to pay your current carrier’s early termination fees, But making the switch to the carrier isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk for your family. You’ll have to pay for new phones to join if your current phones aren’t compatible with the T-Mobile network. If they aren’t compatible, check the trade-in value of your phones to see if you can get enough cash to cover enough of the cost of the great low-cost Android devices currently available.

Or maybe skip the family plan entirely…

Alternatively, you may decide that it’s in your family’s best interest to skip these family plans entirely. They’re cheaper mainly because you need to give up your lucrative new phone subsidies to join them. If you’re a current Verizon or AT&T customer who enjoys cutting-edge phones like the rumored iPhone 6, it may be in your best interest to avoid having to pay for several $650+ devices up front.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

More from Techlicious:

TIME Tech Policy

Netflix Is Paying AT&T To Make Movies Stream Faster

Netflix Garners Two Top Show Nominations With 'Cards,' 'Orange'
The Netflix Inc. application (app) displays the "Orange is the New Black" series on an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in this arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

After already making similar deals with Comcast and Verizon

Despite its public war against interconnection fees, Netflix has signed another paid peering deal with an Internet Service Provider to improve the quality of its streaming and reduce buffering for its subscribers.

“We reached an interconnect agreement with AT&T in May and since then have been working together to provision additional interconnect capacity to improve the viewing experience of our mutual subscribers,” Netflix spokesperson Anne Marie Squeo said in an emailed statement. “We’re now beginning to turn up the connections, a process that should be complete in the coming days.” AT&T spokesperon Mark Siegel offered a nearly identical statement. Netflix will pay AT&T for this additional capacity, but the payment amount hasn’t been disclosed.

Such fees have become a hotly debated topic among Internet giants this year. Netflix believes it shouldn’t have pay ISPs like AT&T to deliver its video content because consumers are already paying for Internet access. The streaming service argues that these tolls could be used to discriminate against certain Internet companies, and it has conflated the issue with the ongoing debate about net neutrality.

The ISPs disagree. In a March blog post, AT&T executive Jim Cicconi called Netflix “arrogant” for trying to dump its cost of doing business on all subscribers to an ISP. “When Netflix delivered its movies by mail, the cost of delivery was included in the price their customer paid,” he wrote. “It would’ve been neither right nor legal for Netflix to demand a customer’s neighbors pay the cost of delivering his movie.”

For now Netflix has come to an uneasy truce with AT&T in a deal similar to those already established with Verizon and Comcast. But the company is lobbying to get these tolls outlawed when new rules for net neutrality are drafted by the Federal Communications Commission later this year.

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