9 questions to ask before buying
a phone card
Want to come out the winner
on a prepaid phone card deal? Here are some questions you need to ask:
there a connection fee? Some cards charge a low per-minute rate, but zing
you with a fee every time you make a call. "It can be as high as $3 overseas,"
says Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for Consumer
Action, a national nonprofit organization. But the typical card charges anywhere
from 75 cents to $1.
Instead, "Look for a card with no
[connection] fee," she advises.
What's the pay phone
surcharge? Expect to pay it. It's still more convenient than pumping quarters
into a phone, but keep it reasonable. Less than 50 cents is the optimum, according
Is there a minimum calling time? You may
get an answering machine or just want to say "Hi-I'm-alive-bye." No
matter how great the rate, the card is no buy if you make a one-minute call and
get zinged for the price of five minutes.
Does the card
use "rounding"? Similar to minimums, a company could round calling
times to the nearest minute ... or the nearest three minutes. Find out ahead just
how fast your carrier's stopwatch really is.
And the clock
should not start until the party on the other end, or the voice mail, answers,
says Howard Segermark, executive director of the International Prepaid Communications
Association, an industry trade group.
Are there daily, weekly or monthly fees? Some
cards will deduct fees on a regular basis. This lets the company
drain your card, whether you use it or not. Many states require
that companies disclose these fees, and the legitimate ones will,
What's the card's expiration date? Just like
milk and eggs, cards only last so long. Then your minutes, and your
money, could evaporate. "It's not technically a fee, but it
can really hit you," says Sherry.
And the shelf life on cards varies widely. Some last
a scant two weeks, while others are good for two years. Look for
one that is valid for at least six months, advises Sherry.
Are there options for "recharging" or
paying for additional minutes? If so, how can you do it, are
there any costs and will you still use the same fee schedule?
Is there a toll-free number to connect to the network
or use customer service? And is it staffed? With phone cards,
the name of the game is convenience -- and that means easy access
to help for questions or concerns. Too many cheap cards either offer
no customer service number or provide a number to a phone that just
rings and rings, says Sherry.
Is the program user friendly? Face it, with
some products you tear off the wrapper and you're ready to go. Others
force you to jump through hoops -- wasting your time and money.
One thirty-something professional bought a card that
required scraping off paint to reveal the secret pin code. The problem:
once the paint was gone, the pin code was indecipherable. Remember,
for a product to qualify as a good buy, it has to be easy to use.