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 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 deals

The Apple Store Is Now the Last Place You Should Buy Your iPhone

customer carrying Verizon bag
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the best deal on a new iPhone, avoid the company that actually makes the device.

UPDATE—5:12 P.M.

In the past, it didn’t really matter where you bought your iPhone. It would cost the same upfront, and you’d be presented with the same plan and pricing options almost anywhere you went to make the purchase.

Over the years, however, retailers and providers have periodically offered discounts and other perks—trade-in and sign-on bonuses, special gift cards, etc.—to set themselves apart from the competition and win the business of more iPhone customers. This week’s unveiling of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus has been accompanied by particularly compelling deals from Sprint and Verizon, among others. And what makes these deals especially interesting is that they can’t be had by consumers buying directly from Apple.

In other words, all of those people camped out at the Apple Store in anticipation of buying the new iPhone are waiting at the wrong place if what they want is the best deal. (Admittedly, the most fanatical Apple fans aren’t waiting in line for days in order to get a good price—they’re in it for other, mostly illogical reasons.)

Sprint rolled out two special deals for the new iPhones: an unlimited talk, text, and data plan for $50 per month with either the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus; and an “iPhone for Life” plan that includes all of the above plus a free iPhone upgrade every two years, at a cost of $70 per month for the iPhone 6 16GB. Note that the latter is a lease: You’re technically paying $20 monthly for the phone, plus $50 a month for the service plan. Because it’s a lease, when you upgrade, Sprint gets to resell the old phone, not you. Also, note that for both of these deals, customers pay $0 upfront when signing up. (The lease option costs $0 upfront for everyone, and for the $50/month plan, Sprint gives new customers a credit up to $300 for trading in an old phone, which should cover the initial cost of a new iPhone.)

Finally, note that for now at least, these offers aren’t available from Apple. “Both the Sprint Simply Unlimited Plan – unlimited data, talk and text for $50 per month – and the iPhone for Life lease option ($20 for 16 GB iPhone 6) are available through Sprint branded stores, sprint.com and Sprint telesales,” a Sprint spokesperson clarified to MONEY via e-mail. “At this time, iPhone for Life Plan is not available at Apple stores.”

T-Mobile, meanwhile, announced that starting September 17, it’ll beat any old phone trade-in offer from Sprint, AT&T, or Verizon by $50. Verizon Wireless promises a $200 gift card for customers who are trading in an iPhone 4 (or later model) and are signing up for a new two-year contract. The credit essentially offsets the $199 upfront cost of the iPhone 6. AT&T just announced that new and existing customers will get a $100 bill credit when registering a new iPhone for service by September 30.

What all of these deals have in common is that they’re not available to shoppers who buy iPhones at Apple Stores or Apple.com. Apple has its own trade-in programs and promotions, but ironically, the iPhone’s manufacturer offers the worst deals of all. Go into an Apple store on September 19 (assuming you can fight through the crowds) and you’ll be able to pick up a brand new iPhone 6 starting at the carrier-subsidied price of $199. Apple also offers the AT&T Next program, in which customers can upgrade their phone as soon as once every 12 months.

And… that’s about it. The company offers a recycling program where customers can get money off their next purchase or an Apple gift card in exchange for old Apple hardware. Unfortunately, this program pales in comparison to similar initiatives from Verizon and T-Mobile. An iPhone 4 in good condition will get you $60 from Apple, compared with $200 from Verizon—and even more from T-Mobile, which again will match competitor’s trade-in offers and top it by $50. There are many other options for selling an iPhone on your own that’ll net far more cash than what Apple would offer.

[An Apple spokesperson later contacted us to point out that Apple stores offer services that carrier locations do not, such as setting up a customer's iPhone to connect with iCloud, downloading their favorite apps, and otherwise helping iPhone buyers get comfortable with their devices.]

The new iPhones are officially on sale as of September 19, and preorders are being accepted starting September 12. We understand that buying an iPhone at an Apple Store is part of “the experience” for some consumers. Just bear in mind that by doing so, you’ll likely be paying a price beyond the time you spent waiting in line.

Related:
Apple Pay Is Here—And There’s One Big Problem
Why Only Apple Has What It Takes to Disrupt Our Wallets
Watch Apple’s Big Product Launch in Less Than 2 Minutes

TIME Companies

Sprint Ends T-Mobile Bid, Ousts CEO

A Sprint Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
A pedestrian passes in front of a Sprint store in New York City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Resistance from regulators was the last straw for merger talks

Sprint will both end its pursuit of T-Mobile and replace chief executive Dan Hesse, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The $32 billion deal between Sprint and T-Mobile — the U.S. carrier arm of Deutsche Telekom — collapsed after it became clear that U.S. antitrust regulators would not allow it to go through.

CNBC said that the two companies faced steep opposition from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in making joint bids for spectrum.

“The FCC told them last week that the two companies will not be allowed to bid on spectrum together,” Scott Nations, chief investment officer and president at NationsShares, told CNBC.

Shares for SoftBank, Sprint’s Japanese parent company, tumbled 3.5% in Tokyo on Wednesday. Deutsche Telekom’s shares were down 2.38% by Wednesday midmorning in Frankfurt.

The nine-month-long merger talks between Sprint and T-Mobile were carried out in the hopes of boosting sales and competition against dominant market players Verizon and AT&T. Sprint has failed to see above the red line for years — having lost money annually since 2007.

But Sprint isn’t the only T-Mobile courtier to see merger plans fall. AT&T’s $39 billion bid for T-Mobile was prevented in 2011 after the U.S. Justice Department sued the second largest telecom company.

News reports indicate that Hesse will be replaced by Marcelo Claure on Wednesday. Claure is the CEO and founder of wireless service company Brightstar Corp. He has also been a Sprint board member since January.

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.

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TIME Tech Policy

Meet the Woman Keeping Silicon Valley in Check

Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez Cade Martin 2014

Edith Ramirez is probably not the most popular person in Seattle right now. As the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, she’s currently suing two of the city’s biggest tech companies: Amazon, for allegedly making it too easy for kids to rack up in-app purchases on their parents’ Kindles, and T-Mobile, for allegedly cramming unwanted charges into customers’ phone bills. That’s to say nothing of the recent settlements with Snapchat over false marketing and Apple over in-app purchases. It’s all come under the watchful eye of Ramirez, who assumed the chairwoman’s position in March 2013 and has taken a laser focus to the activities of tech companies, particularly in regards to mobile.

The new FTC head talked to TIME about the hidden permissions lurking in terms of service agreements, Facebook’s controversial mood study and whether Americans should ever expect a “right to be forgotten” online. An edited version of the conversation is below.

TIME: How important is the technology sector as a whole for the FTC right now? Is it an area of focus for you personally?

Ramirez: Our fundamental mission is to protect consumers and promote competition and so we are going to be wherever consumers are. The reality is that technology has been playing a critically important role for the agency for a number of years. Because we see consumers really gravitating to mobile devices, it’s crucial that the agency be very much informed about and keenly aware of what’s happening in the mobile sphere.

TIME: What are the biggest challenges or dangerous that consumers can face with the rise of mobile?

Ramirez: You want consumers to be able to partake in all of the terrific innovation we see in the marketplace. One way to assure that is to make sure the products that are out there take into account what’s of concern to consumers—that includes, among other things, taking into account concerns about data security and privacy, and also making sure that some of the basic protections that we’re all used to when we walk into a grocery store or a local convenience store, that we also have those basic protections available to us when we’re engaging in a transaction on our smartphone.

Data security is paramount in my view. The more connected we are, the more information and data that is being gathered by all sorts of different companies. It’s crucial that this personal information that is being collected and being used, that companies take reasonable steps to ensure that data is protected.

TIME: We live in this era now where people sign up for services and they don’t read the fine print. Do you think there’s a base level of privacy or control that Internet companies should be affording their customers?

Ramirez: I do. We realize that consumers aren’t going to be poring over long, confusing privacy policies. Now that we’re in a mobile world, what’s the likelihood that anyone’s going to be scrolling through on a mobile device some lengthy privacy policy? That’s become increasingly unlikely.

Companies need to be thinking about privacy from the get-go, when they first start conceiving of any new product or service. If you’re developing an app that’s a flashlight app, do you really need to have access to my contacts? Do you really need to have access to my geolocation? If they want to access information that goes beyond what one would expect, they ought to be asking for permission to do that.

I think we’ve seen a tremendous improvement, even in the course of the time I’ve been at the agency. We’ve seen companies realize that consumers really do care very deeply about maintaining their information [security] and they want to also exercise greater control. At the same time I think a lot more needs to be done in this area. A lot in this area still continues to take place behind the scenes in a black box. Consumers may not fully appreciate the extent of data-sharing that’s taking place.

TIME: Last month people were upset because Facebook did this experiment where they were altering people’s News Feeds to change their mood in some way. Do you think that experiment was appropriate for them to do?

Ramirez: I can’t really comment on the specifics of what Facebook did, but I think what it does show is again the need for consumers to be in the driver’s seat. They want to know what companies are doing, how they’re using the information that they’re sharing. It just goes to show that consumers don’t want to be in the dark about this. That’s a basic responsibility companies have—they ought to be transparent about what they’re doing, they ought to give consumers an opportunity to have control over how their information is being used, what information is being collected. Simply because [consumers] are receiving a service, and even it happens to be free, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be in control.

TIME: Does the FTC plan to investigate the Facebook issue formally?

Ramirez: We can’t comment on how investigations we conduct. What I can tell you is these are issues we are concerned about and we are monitoring the marketplace.

TIME: In Europe, the courts recently enshrined a “right to be forgotten,” so people can delete articles about themselves from search results. Do you think that’s something Americans should have the right to for privacy reasons?

Ramirez: Of course we’re operating here in the U.S. under a very different legal regime than folks are in Europe. An expansive “right to be forgotten” is not something that’s likely to pass Constitutional muster here in the United States because there is a First Amendment right to both access to public information and freedom of expression. At the same time, I do understand the need for us to think about controlling our own information. By way of example, I know that consumers want to be able to delete information. If they’re on a particular platform, they will want to be able to be assured that if they close out their account that their information will be deleted. This is exactly an element of an order we have with Facebook. It’s not an expansive right to be forgotten, but there are certain controls and tools that I think U.S. consumers would like to have.

TIME: As we see these tech companies like Google and Amazon getting bigger and bigger, taking up a larger portion of their sectors, do you think there are antitrust issues with these companies as they continue to grow?

Ramirez: With any large company, if they have market power, monopoly power, we would be looking closely at how they use that. We did conduct an investigation relative to Google a couple of years back. In that particular investigation, we opted not to take action.

TIME: A lot of times when FTC settlements come out, people see the dollar figure, and it seems like a slap on the wrist to these companies that are generating billions of dollars in revenue every year. Are the actions you take actual deterrents to stop companies from abusing consumers in various ways?

Ramirez: We do not have general civil penalty authority. We can’t assess a fine when we find a violation of law under our general statute. What we can do is seek to obtain consumer redress or we can, if appropriate, ask a company to disgorge any unlawful gains that resulted from the unlawful conduct.

In any particular case, the amount that you may see, you may think, ‘Well how does that compare to the profits of a company?” But that’s not really the analysis. The analysis on our end is, “Are we successfully recovering money that would compensate consumers for the damage that they have suffered.”

I think our enforcement work is sending important signals to the marketplace. In the privacy arena, Facebook, Google, Twitter [are] under order. It’s sent important signals to them, and I think as a result of the action that we’ve taken, companies are more aware of what their responsibilities are.

TIME: How are you able to strike a balance between this goal of consumer protection and allowing companies to innovate and try new things?

Ramirez: Whether it’s having information about what you’re paying for, whether it’s knowing what information an app might want to have access to when I’m downloading it—all of these things really work side by side with innovation. I don’t think consumers should have to sacrifice their privacy, the security of their information…when they avail themselves of all these terrific products that we see today. In fact I think for companies to flourish, it’s really important that consumers feel they can trust the products that they’re using, that they feel that they know the full extent of what is happening when they download a service. Companies will flourish all the more if they provide basic protections.

MONEY Tech

QUIZ: What’s Your Perfect Cellphone Plan?

Fed up with your cellphone carrier? There's most likely a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today. Take our quiz to find the right one.

Check out all of MONEY’s Best Cellphone Plans of 2014. Thinking about switching cellphone carriers? Do these four things first.

MONEY Tech

The Best Cellphone Plans of 2014

No matter what type of cellphone user you are, MONEY found a mobile plan that's right for you.

201407_CEL
Paul Windle

Haven’t shopped for phone service recently? You’re in for a shock. “In the past year plans have changed more than in the previous five,” says ­Logan Abbott of comparison site Wirefly.com.

Forget choosing among the Big Four and their handful of offerings: Today’s market is made up of an overwhelming mob of carriers and options. And as if that isn’t confusing enough, the recent news that the Federal Trade Commission is accusing T-Mobile of “cramming,” or billing customers for unauthorized services, may have you wondering if your provider is ripping you off. (The short answer: It may have in the past, but these days, probably not. For more, read Time’s story on cramming and how to spot it.)

Perhaps the biggest change to the industry is the shift away from two-year service contracts. Now you can choose a contract plan, with a discounted phone and high monthly rates, or a cheaper option that requires you to pay upfront for a new phone or bring your own. (Phone compatibility varies.) We found that noncontract plans came out on top in nine of 10 categories. Plus, the longer you keep your phone on a noncontract option, the better the deal gets.

The rise of smaller carriers also looks like good news. These firms have finally become a viable option, with access to the newest phones and reliable coverage, thanks to arrangements that let them use big companies’ nationwide networks. One potential downside is that the larger firms usually prioritize their own users, so the little guys’ customers may have to contend with less coverage or slower data speeds, says Mike Dano of cell news publication Fierce Wireless. Unless you use a ton of data, though, it’s not much of an issue.

Overall, cell coverage has improved. Verizon and AT&T still generally have the broadest networks, though “everyone has gotten better in the last six to 12 months,” says Bill Moore, president of service-rating firm Root Metrics. To see which carriers’ networks have the best performance where you live, go to Rootmetrics.com and enter your address.

For cellphone users, this all boils down to one thing: There’s probably a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today.

To help you find it, MONEY parsed more than 75 options from a range of carriers. We started by grouping plans into categories based on features such as talk, text, and data packages. Next, we added up the price of two years of service, plus the cost of a 16GB iPhone 5s for each plan member for all 75+ option. We used the phone price offered by the carrier (full price for non­contract plans and subsidized prices for contract options), then sorted these results by price. Finally, we factored in phone choice, as well as network quality and customer service scores from Root Metrics and J.D. Power.

All family plans are for four people. We consider up to 1GB of data per person light use, 2GB to 3GB average, and 5GB or more heavy. All plans are chosen based on domestic use. For information about international use, read our story on using your cellphone abroad.

Best for Light Callers

If you only use your phone for calls, texts, and occasional web surfing, you likely don’t need more than 1GB of data. Cricket offers you the best price.

Individual Plan:
Cricket Basic
Family Plan:
Cricket Basic
Monthly bill $40* $100*
Two-year cost with phones $1,610* $5,000*
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 500MB 500MB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network AT&T 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Smartphone options start at $50 Includes the option to
pay off new phones over time

Best Individual Plan: Cricket Basic

Sign up for auto bill pay, and this plan drops to $35. Cricket, now owned by AT&T, offers a range of phones, and, like many noncontract options, lets you bring your own. Go over your data limit? The carrier will slow your service rather than charge you extra.

Glitch: Cricket taps into AT&T’s network, but its data speed is slower than that of the larger carrier.

Best Family Plan: Cricket Basic

For a family that doesn’t use that much data, Cricket’s price is a head-turner—especially when you consider that it includes taxes and fees. The carrier’s use of AT&T’s cell towers gives it greater reach than many providers in this price range.

Glitch: Unlike the majority of family options, you cannot add tablets or other devices to this plan.

Best for Typical Users

Do you use your phone to post on social media, browse the web, and get directions when you’re on the move? Chances are you still only need 2GB or 3GB a month. These plans will offer you the best value.

Individual Plan:
Straight Talk Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 3 GB
Monthly bill $45 $140
Two-year cost with phones $1,730 $5,952
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 3GB 3GB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network Multiple 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Wal-Mart and online Will pay your termination fee
if you switch carriers

Best Individual Plan: Straight Talk Unlimited

This plan is just $41.25 a month if you pay for a year upfront. Straight Talk uses all four big carriers; the network you’ll use depends on your phone and area, says Dennis Bournique of PrepaidPhoneNews.com.

Glitch: Like most low-cost carriers, Straight Talk may not allow you to tap into another provider’s network if you venture out of its service area.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 3GB

At this price point, it’s a duel between Cricket and T-Mobile, and for those who seek faster data speeds, T-Mobile wins out. Does someone in your clan have a tablet? You can add it, and 1.2 GB of data to use with the device, free through 2014.

Glitch: This network is fast in many metro areas, but it isn’t as broad as those of Verizon and AT&T.

Best for Bargain Hunters

Users who want a ton of data at the lowest possible price should check out these options.

Individual Plan:
Metro PCS Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 5G
Monthly bill $60* $180
Two-year cost with phones $2,089** $6,912
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data Unlimited 5GB per person
Data overage? None Speed slows
Network T-Mobile 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Top customer service marks from J.D. Power T-Mobile’s network speed has improved recently

Best Individual Plan: Metro PCS Unlimited

This affordable offering from T-Mobile-owned Metro PCS is one of the few true unlimited plans still available today. “Their data isn’t throttled at all, and it is fast,” says Bournique.

Glitch: The carrier doesn’t sell iPhones, but does offer the popular Samsung Galaxy S 5.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 5GB

Finding a competitively priced plan that combines a boatload of data with a fast network isn’t easy. Simple Choice, however, is a good pick, particularly in cities, where T-Mobile is at its fastest. The plan also includes a perk for international travelers: free data when abroad.

Glitch: T-Mobile can be patchy in rural areas.

Best for Power Users

If you’re willing to pay more for the most reliable networks, buy one of these plans.

Individual Plan:
Verizon More Everything
Family Plan:
AT&T Mobile Value Share
Monthly bill $120 $210
Two-year cost with phones $3,080 $7,640
Can you bring a phone? No Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 6GB 20GB shared
Data overage? $15 per GB $15 per GB
Network Verizon 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment iPhone 5s is $200 Option to pay off phones
over two years vs. upfront

Best Individual Plan: Verizon More Everything

The only contract plan in our guide, this More Everything option costs the same as AT&T’s competitive plan (and less than other high-end Verizon options). Given the choice, we recommend the speed and reliability of Verizon’s widespread 4G LTE coverage for heavy phone users.

Glitch: Watch those hefty overage fees.

Best Family Plan: AT&T Mobile Share Value

Though similar in price and features to Verizon’s noncontract plan, AT&T noses ahead because more phones are compatible with its network. Also, note that AT&T bested its big rival in J.D. Power’s wireless customer care survey.

Glitch: Yes, it’s $40 more than you’d pay with T-Mobile, but AT&T has wider coverage.

Best for Frequent Upgraders

Always want the latest phone? Go with AT&T.

AT&T Next 12
Monthly bill $98
Two-year cost with phones $2,340
Can you bring a phone? No
Minutes Unlimited
Texts Unlimited
Data 2 GB
Data overage? $15 per GB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Only AT&T has the Amazon phone

Best Plan: AT&T Next 12

Insist on having the latest phone? Try AT&T. Next costs the same as a similar Verizon plan, but AT&T wins, since it’s “the leader in getting the hottest devices,” says CNET writer Maggie Reardon. On this plan you lease your phone over 20 months and must return it if you upgrade sooner.

Glitch: If you haven’t yet paid 60% of the old phone’s value, you must pony up the remainder to trade up to a new model. Still, that’s cheaper than buying two phones at retail price.

Best Basic for Couples

If you and your spouse don’t use your phones a lot, Consumer Cellular has the best plan for you.

Consumer Cellular
1,200 minutes/1 GB
Monthly bill $60
Two-year cost with phones $2,740
Can you bring a phone? Yes
Minutes 1,200 shared
Texts 5,000
Data 1 GB shared
Data overage? 25 cents per MB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Sears and online

Best Plan: Consumer Cellular 1,200 Minutes/1GB

This Consumer Cellular option is dramatically cheaper than competitive plans, making it a great pick for couples who don’t spend a ton of time on their phones. The carrier also has a reputation for good customer service. A bonus: Consumer Cellular recently added new phones, including the iPhone, to its device lineup.

Glitch: This is one of the few plans that still caps talk minutes and text messages, though you can pay to add more.

Find a great plan that requires you to switch carriers? Read more about how to break up with your current provider here.

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