Buyers Tips

Pre-Paid Phone Cards

As the pre-paid phone card industry mushrooms, and as more people buy and use the cards, some problems are coming to light. The most common consumer complaints are about:

- access numbers or PINs that don't work;
- issuers who go out of business, leaving card-holders with a useless card;
- customer service numbers that are busy or simply don't work;
- toll-free access numbers that are constantly busy, preventing use of the card;
- rates that are higher than advertised;
- hidden connection charges, taxes and surcharges;
- cards that debit minutes or units even when you don't connect with the party you're calling; and
- poor quality connections.

Although many pre-paid phone cards are impulse purchases, you can preempt disappointment by checking out a few things in advance:

* Ask if the retailer will stand behind the card if the telephone service is unsatisfactory.

* Look for the rate for domestic and international calls on the card's package or on the vending machine. These rates may vary depending on where you call. If you can't find the rate, call the card's customer service number.

* The pre-paid phone card industry is highly competitive. Beware of very low rates, particularly for international calls. They may indicate poor customer service.

* Look for disclosures about surcharges, monthly fees, per-call access, and the like, in addition to the rate-per-minute or unit. Some cards add a surcharge to the first minute of use. Others charge an activation fee for recharging cards.

* Check on expiration dates. Most cards expire one year after first use. If there is no expiration date, a card usually is considered "live" until all phone time is used.

* Look for a toll-free customer service number. If the customer service number isn't toll-free or displayed, it may be difficult to contact the company if you have a problem with the card. A busy signal on the customer service line may be a tip off to a rip-off.

* Be sure the card comes with instructions that you understand.

* Make sure the card comes in a sealed envelope or has a sticker covering the PIN. Otherwise, anyone who copies the PIN can use the phone time you've already paid for.

* Ask friends and relatives for references on the card you're thinking of buying.



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