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Consumer Watch: How to avoid fees for canceling cell service

Jun. 2, 2011 - 01:18PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 2, 2011 - 01:18PM  |  
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Two recent questions have come in that relate to cancellation of cellphone service because of military orders.

A military wife in the U.S. wants to know why her husband's cellphone company requires a copy of his deployment orders to cancel the service while he's deployed; and a soldier in Germany asks about fees charged by overseas providers when canceling for a deployment or permanent move.

"I spent 20 minutes talking to a manager and explaining that the information in deployment orders like dates and times are classified and I cannot send them that," she wrote.

But she said the company told her that without those deployment orders, her choices were to pay a large termination fee, or continue to pay for the phone service while her husband was deployed.

The company is within its rights — in fact, the law requires it. The Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act states that in order to terminate a contract after the member receives orders to move for a period of at least 90 days to a location that doesn't support the contract, the company must receive a written or electronic notice of the termination and a copy of the service member's orders.

"Ultimately, you have to have a copy of the orders," said Army Col. Shawn Shumake, director of the Pentagon's office of legal policy. The wife will not to get in trouble for showing those orders to get the contract canceled, he added.

The spouse could not be reached for further clarification after her initial question. But generally, military orders are not classified — and in fact are required for a lot of things, to include arranging for household goods moves and terminating a rental lease, to name a couple. If a spouse has a copy of the orders, they're not classified.

The company in this case, AT&T, also told her it would accept a letter from her husband's commanding officer. But, she noted, everyone is at sea with her husband.

The next step is to ask her husband to get a letter from his command. If a spouse is unable to communicate with a deployed service member, he or she can check with someone who serves in a liaison capacity with the command — such as a left-behind military contingent, an ombudsman or a family readiness group leader.

Spouses and service members have access to legal help through their legal assistance offices on base, and these attorneys are required to be familiar with the SCRA. To find the nearest legal assistance office, http://legalassistance.law.af.mil/content/locator.php">click here.

A staff sergeant in Grafenwoehr, Germany, asks about "horror stories" he has heard of troops with permanent change-of-station orders "shelling out huge amounts of money" to get out of overseas cellphone contracts. He has no personal experience with the contracts and hasn't talked to Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials at the base, he said, because the cellphone stores are outside the PX.

Even so, those shops operate under contract with AAFES.

AAFES has a contract with German firm Telepost Kabel (TKS) to provide mobile service for authorized shoppers in Germany, acting as a reseller for two mobile service providers, T-Mobile and Vodaphone, said Ryan James, chief of OCONUS Telecom Services for AAFES.

"While exchange contracts do include a PCS clause which refers to the termination of the actual service, it does not cover payment for the handset," James said in an email. The remainder of the phone's cost is what companies will charge you for when you're canceling.

"You're getting a severely discounted handset by locking in" for the term of the contract, said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for the nonprofit advocate organization Consumer Action. Customers generally save one-fourth to one-half of the cost of their phone on the open market by buying it through the carrier, she said.

James said the prepaid option has become very popular with deployed troops. They buy a phone upfront and then buy packages of minutes. "Kits" include a handset, SIM card, charger and a starter balance of minutes.

The staff sergeant has decided to use a prepaid cellphone and plan. "It seems easier, and I'm not tied to these horrible contract agreements," he said.

Meanwhile, for those in the U.S., Consumer Action's new website, WirelessEd.org, has a calculator feature under its "Tools" section that allows you to comparison shop for the mobile plans that meet your needs.

AAFES relies on customers for feedback — and that includes feedback about concessionaire shops located outside exchanges, James said.

"If they encounter a negative experience, we want them to let us know and we will make sure any problems or issues are corrected," he said.

Free admission to museums

Active-duty, National Guard and Reserve military family members will get free admission to more than 1,300 participating museums across the country through Labor Day under a partnership between Blue Star Families and the National Endowment for the Arts.

This is the second year of the program, funded by donors that include MetLife Foundation. A list of participating museums is available http://www.bluestarfam.org/bluestarmuseums">by clicking here.

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