Cell phone contract early termination fees are slowly becoming a thing of the past. A major shift instigated in the US by T-Mobile -- the first major carrier to completely eliminate contract requirements and penalties -- foregoing ETFs looks like it'll become standard practice for the rest of the major carriers soon enough. It hasn't happened yet, but movement from the likes of AT&T and Sprint, who both now offer early upgrade programs, indicates the tide may be turning.
Of course, this doesn't help the leagues of hapless consumers still locked into contracts they no longer want any part of. For those still suffering under the yolk of restriction, here are some suggestions on how to get out of a cell phone contract without paying exorbitant early termination fees.
Most cell phone customers operate under the assumption that they're locked into their plans for the long haul, unable to leave so much as a month early without having to fork over hundreds of dollars in ETFs. But not all ETFs are designed the same, and in most cases it may be possible to break a contract with minimal financial impact.
AT&T and Verizon both reduce the payout amount of its $350 ETFs by $10 per month, incrementally reducing the sum owed. This makes early termination a less costly prospect for those nearing the end of their contract. Sprint's proration is similar, charging $20 for every remaining month of the contract up to $350, with a minimum of $100. It's roughly sixes and it'll never be free -- but it's still an alternative worth looking into instead of waiting for the clock to run out.
Most people would rather do battle with a hungry lion than suffer through the legalese of an official service contract. Still, doing so remains in the best interests of anyone seeking a way out. Escape clauses are sometimes written deep into the Terms and Conditions that allow customers to sever ties without cost as long as they meet qualifying criteria.
One such criteria is the death of the main accountholder. Another is moving to an area where the carrier doesn't offer service. An even easier out is one frequently extended to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who are deployed overseas, as long as they provide proof via official military orders. Not all service contracts include these clauses, but in many cases it's possible to get an early release by explaining the situation to the provider and hoping they're reasonable about it.
Offering proof positive that it pays to read the obligatory inserts sometimes included with monthly bills, changes to Terms and Conditions can sometimes be used to break a contract with a service provider. Any time even a slight change is made to the existing T&C, carriers are required by law to mail notification to their customers. For the most part, these changes are minimal and have little to no impact on actual costs or service. In some cases, the changes may even be beneficial. But it's still a change that technically voids the existing contract.
Examining the fine print may reveal some rather telling data, like this paragraph taken straight from Verizon's customer agreement FAQ: "We may change prices or any other term of your service or this agreement at any time, but we'll provide notice first, including written notice. If you use your service after the change takes effect, that means you're accepting the change. If a change to your Plan or this agreement has a material adverse effect on you, you can cancel the line of Service that has been affected within 60 days of receiving the notice with no early termination fee."
For those who would rather gouge their eyes out than read fine print on a monthly basis, it may also be possible to sign up for contract change notifications by text or email, depending on the carrier.
T-Mobile made headlines and subsequently left the competition in the dust in Q4 2013 by offering to pay early termination fees for customers wanting to switch from another carrier. It was a genius marketing move and a perfectly timed answer to the multitudes clamoring for greater choice.
In answer to this, AT&T ran a month-long promotion in January offering T-Mobile customers up to $450 per line to change their service. Even though that offer has already expired and AT&T has announced no plans to revive it, this doesn't mean that a determined individual can't ask their prospective new carrier to buy out their ETF. Granted, this is a method whose effectiveness will vary greatly depending on who's being asked and at what time of day. But it never hurts to ask.
Carefully poring over monthly bills to identify inaccurate charges may prove to be time well spent, especially for those looking for an excuse - any excuse - to get out of their contracts. Identifying errors in billing is always important, but what's even more important is taking action by notifying the service provider when they occur.
Since every single call a customer makes to customer service or tech support is noted in the carrier's computer database -- including the time of day, the issue that was discussed, and actions taken by the customer service representative -- this effectively creates a cumulative history of issues that could be taken into consideration by a supervisor when asked to waive an ETF.
Issues of poor service, drastically reduced data speeds, missed calls and texts, and frequently dropped connections abound -- more so with certain carriers than others. Reporting these incidents when they occur is crucial because it can help build a case in favor of getting released from a contract without penalty -- especially if the issues are recurring and not resolved. Keep logs of all people spoken to and all issues reported, and prepare to be persistent. It often takes more than a single request.
The world is filled with bad customer service horror stories. But those experiences could ultimately prove beneficial to the aims of the individual seeking premature liberty from his or her cell phone contract. Unfulfilled requests, unresolved technical issues, and even ridiculously long hold times could be leveraged by a dissatisfied customer to bolster their argument for receiving an ETF waiver. This method isn't always successful, but it's certainly worth the several hundred dollars of savings that could come as a result.
Giving up too soon always results in less than desirable outcomes. As anyone who's ever worked in a call center can attest, escalating issues to supervisors and managers can bring vastly different results than speaking to a front-line customer service representative.
If taking the escalated call approach fails and complaints still fall on deaf or unyielding ears, seek out contact information for departments with names like "Presidential Complaints" or "Office of the President" to take the complaint higher. Posting complaints to the social media profiles of service providers is another effective way of getting noticed and heard, even though there are never any guarantees.
Yet another potential way out that also requires customers to read their service contracts is the oft-included ability to transfer ownership of an existing plan to another party. It's a concept similar to a real estate sublease or a car sale, where the new owner agrees to take over payments for the duration of the contract.
For those who lack the necessary coercion skills to find a sucker willing to take over their contract, there exist companies like celltradeusa.com and cellswapper.com. These are basically "matchmaking" services that exist solely for the purpose of hooking people up with other users interested in swapping cell phone plans.
If none of the above methods work, the only options left are to bite the bullet and pay the ETF or wait until the clock runs out. Taking the latter route requires patience, but can also benefit from a touch of creative budgeting. Downgrading an existing plan by stripping away superfluous expenses like high end data plans and handset insurance can make watching the calendar at least a bit less costly -- and thus that much more bearable.
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