A friend of mine whom I’ll call Hurley knows I write about mobility for TechRepublic. He shared a mobility tale of woe involving his carrier, Sprint. The experience and the recommendations involved were noteworthy enough to share today, especially since Hurley bought an S5 phone based on an article I wrote on the topic.

However, I want to preface this article by stating this is not intended as a “hit piece” on Sprint specifically, but rather an opportunity to learn about some “gotcha” techniques which are universal among carriers – and other businesses or service providers.

The situation

“So, here’s what happened, dude,” Hurley told me in an agitated tone. “I went into Sprint a few months back to get a phone and signed on with my girlfriend’s plan. I told them I wanted to buy the S5 and they threw in a free Galaxy Tab 3 [tablet]. I piggybacked on her account, no problem. Shared data plan, separate devices, it was all good. The bills came in to the tune of $170 plus, but I figured ‘eh, it’s about $85 apiece on average, seems normal.’ We never went over the 4 Gb data limit so I didn’t really pay attention.”

“Let me guess, then you finally checked the billing details,” I said.

“Yeah. I found out the “free” tablet was racking up charges of $26 per month; $15 for the mobile data plan and $11 for insurance. I liked the tablet but didn’t think I needed these costs. I called Sprint and asked them to cancel both charges. They took the insurance off but told me there was an early termination fee to cancel the mobile data plan – it would end up being $200. The plan is a two-year plan.”

“Which means you’re shelling out $360 for the plan over two years. It’s cheaper to cancel it and eat the cost,” I observed.

“Right, but then I figured ‘what the heck, I might need it somehow like in an emergency situation.’ So I left that on.

“You know, entire industries make their livelihood based on the fear of calamity,” I commented. “Insurance agencies, weapons manufacturers and private security firms. Same applies in reverse: the hope of good fortune brings millions of people to Vegas every year. You know who built those palaces on the Strip? People emptying their pockets in the casinos.”

“Yeah, yeah. But $200 is a hard price to pay for a lesson, dude.” Hurley went on, showing me a copy of his Sprint invoice:

“Here’s the next thing that went wrong,” he said. See that ‘Monthly lease charge?’ I thought I was buying the phone and not leasing it. So I got on a chat with them – it was tough, since I use [the latest versions of] Firefox and Chrome and the Sprint chat function apparently doesn’t work with those so I had to use Internet Explorer – and asked them about it. I figured I’d rather buy the phone than lease it. I don’t plan to upgrade to the Galaxy 6 since it has no removable battery or micro-SD card slot and I already have equipment protection.”

The following chat ensued:

Support rep: “I see that you purchased the Samsung phone under Lease program to phone line (number) on (date). If you want to own the phone, you will have to pay the remaining lease installment plus the device purchase option amount.”

Hurley: “Okay, how much is that?”

Support rep: “The remaining installment is $303.14 and the equipment purchase amount is $200.”

Hurley: “OMG.”

“Hurley, you didn’t intend to lease the phone,” I pointed out. “Buying that phone should have cost something like $199 with a 2-year contract or $649 outright. You’re basically paying the same amount to lease the phone – and getting nothing back – than if you’d just bought the thing straight up without a contract. Does the phrase ‘sheep shearing’ mean anything to you?”

“I know, dude, I know,” Hurley shrugged. “I figured the sales guy was really nice so maybe he just made a mistake when he sold me the phone – leased it to me, I mean. I didn’t want to go yell at him and it was an honest mistake. I went over that bill with a microscope, though. I figure all the surcharges and fees are just a fact of life so I can’t do anything there. The equipment protection, yeah, we need it. Sooner or later someone’s phone is going into the hot tub. The third party charges on my girlfriend’s phone were some app purchases and stuff she made. But I made sure to ask them about that tablet. I figured once the data plan ran out they might try to start charging me, but they told me directly that ‘once it expires it is yours.'”

“Well, that’s good,” I said dryly.

So, what have we learned from this?

Ask before buying. Ask again. Ask some more.

Whether it’s a phone, a car, a house or anything else, don’t sign on the dotted line unless you are certain you understand what you’re getting into. Ask questions if you don’t get it – and like any good lawyer (for that’s what it seems you must be in this day and age when buying services or products) ask the same question different ways to ensure the responses are satisfactory.

I love sales people. Some of my best friends are sales people. A sales guy got me my current day job years ago. And even he will admit that salespeople can be deliberately vague, may conveniently leave out certain details, or may phrase things in specific ways to make it sound like you’re getting a good deal. For instance, pointing out that the Galaxy Tab 3 premiered at $299 but “you’re getting it for free,” while leaving out the fact the insurance and data plan would have cost Hurley $624 over two years.

Read the fine print

You know why End User License Agreements are so unpopular? Because they’re wordy, tedious and full of legal-ese. Nobody reads them. Vendors usually count on that. You’ve got to put on those spectacles and read the fine print, folks. Your money is at stake here, and rest assured that the devilish details in the fine print may very well rest upon their methods to pry more of it out of you. Mark my words, it’s very rare that any fine print has ever put money back in a customer’s pocket.

Monitor your bill and other activity online

Every single large carrier has a website where you can create an account and monitor your bill, data usage and other details. Set it up the moment you get home with that new device. Log in routinely. Inspect what they’re charging you for and why. Know what’s normal and what’s not, so you can be prepared for any surprises.

Navigate the support waters

I’m an IT guy by day, and one of my biggest frustrations involve the difficulty with getting decent support from a vendor. When my users need to reach me they can email, IM or page me and get a fast response, so I expect the same courtesy from the companies I patronize.

Many support sites remind me of a series of fantasy novels by Piers Anthony involving a magical land called “Xanth.” In these books people could visit Good Magician Humfrey, the magician of information, to ask him a question – any question on any topic – which he would guarantee to answer. However, they had to face three challenges to do so, such as swimming a moat filled with serpents, scaling a high tower or opening a heavy door with neither lock, handle nor hinges. The goal was to weed out the non-serious people and allow only the dedicated individuals access to the answers.

Support sites are often like that. It can be difficult to get connected with a human and find answers, but that’s part of the game. The fact Hurley said the Sprint support site chat option only worked in Internet Explorer seems a sad reminder of this concept. Granted, NetMarketshare.com states that as of September 2015 Internet Explorer holds about 46% of the current desktop browser market share, but that’s not even a majority. To tie support to a particular browser is unacceptable – especially since there was no notice that “for best results please use Internet Explorer.”

Find alternatives

You don’t have to buy what the vendor is offering, whether it be the phone, the accessories or some unnecessary service. Hurley would have been better off buying his phone separately and then hooking it into a Sprint contract. eBay is your friend, if for no other reason than to showcase the value of devices and their related paraphernalia. It can be all too easy to walk into a carrier’s store and just buy one of everything you need, but a little time and research can present better options.

Don’t be nice

I’m sorry to have to say this publicly (I already said it privately), but my friend Hurley is too nice. He didn’t dispute the fact that Sprint mistakenly leased him the phone rather than selling it to him. He could have caused a scene over the unwanted data plan on the tablet. He will wind up paying an exorbitant sum of money to lease a phone he wanted to own.

Remember that sales friend of mine who got me my job? He would have been ruthless with the carrier and probably gotten the phone for half the cost by the time he was finished. “Nice guys finish last” is the theme when it comes to issues involving vendor disputes. Nobody has to “go to the mattresses,” as they say in “The Godfather,” but the fact is you shouldn’t be afraid to argue a point or escalate an issue to a supervisor. The people you’re talking to are professionals, so don’t worry that you might wound their feelings if you firmly ask for a satisfactory resolution on a dispute.

The fact of the matter is that after 20 years in IT I’ve learned that some vendors count on people being nice, or forgetful, or not checking their bill, or not using simple mathematics. It’s up to the consumer to remain watchful and vigilant to ensure carriers do their part without straying beyond the boundaries of fairness.

See also:

Jumping from the Samsung Galaxy S3 to the S5

The current state of mobile enterprise threats

The dark side of wearables: How they’re secretly jeopardizing your security and privacy