A crime in plain view


Although most people have a smartphone and a service plan (and I am one of them), many people still use cell phones that take prepaid “load” cards. These cards are usually in denominations of $5, $10, or $20. You scratch off a strip on the back, call the company and enter the code. Then you’re good to go—for 30 days. Then the phone company will get whatever’s left.

Yes, some of the cards have a little disclaimer on the back—that the money you put in is only good for 30 days. After that, your money is gone because it’s been swiped.

But wait. This is your money, not theirs. If you put money in the bank, it stays there forever, unless you take it out. It should be the same with the phone cards. So if you put 10 bucks into your phone, it should remain there until you use it up, whether it’s one month or one year.

I called up a customer service person at one of the local phone companies and we had a pleasant conversation. He said that I was the first person to ever complain about the cards, but I am a New Yorker and you can’t get anything from me without my noticing.

In my view, what the phone companies are doing is outright theft. Therefore they should change the little disclaimer on the back of the card, “If you don’t use the full value of the card within 30 days, we will get whatever is left.”

I can’t believe I am the first (and perhaps only) person to spot this. It’s an easy way for the phone companies to score a little extra cash, at your expense. I wonder how much money they make from prepaid cards over the course of a year? Good question.

At present, there are three phone companies in the Commonwealth. Of the three, two of them have prepaid cards, and they all expire in 30 days. As Elvis might have said, “Uh, that just ain’t right…”

So the question before us is this: what is the AG’s Office of Consumer Protection doing about this? Hello? Anybody home? This is a crime, and redressed via an indictment, especially if the crime is willfully committed.

The defendants might protest, as they certainly will. “We didn’t know it was a crime to take money from our customers without their consent.” Yep, try that before a judge and see how far you get.

I also talked with another customer service rep from a different phone service provider. He told me that he bought five 10-dollar cards at a time so he would always have telephone service. He was obviously throwing his money away, money which was his, which had earned. But he played by the lousy rules and knew that whatever he didn’t spend, the phone company would just take it.

No matter how you spin it, or what excuses the phone service provider trots out, theft is a crime. No person or business or institution has the right to take your property, even if it’s via a phone card.

In a more perfect world, the money you put into your phone stays there until you use it up. It would be exceedingly kind if the phone provider sent you a little text, “You have $1 left on your account.” I would love that instead of “You have a zero balance.”

Russ Mason
As Teo, Saipan

Russ Mason

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