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Ringtone Scams: Don't Get Caught!

By Arthi Pugazhenthi

Imagine this, you're watching TV when you should be doing homework and a cool ad suggests receiving your cell phone calls to a polyphonic ringtone of "Bootylicious." Sounds like a good idea. You've probably seen many commercials like this from companies such as Jamster and Crazy Frog. They offer seemingly low-cost ringtones of popular songs—you know, pay $2 and get a ringtone.

But there's a big catch:
in many cases, you aren't making a one-time purchase. Many offerings lock you into a weekly or monthly "subscription service" that charges for every text message they send you. Yes, you read that right—they charge you for the messages they send. Easy to get into; tough to get out of.

To target young people the companies use animated characters and popular songs from MTV in their commercials. The ads often appear on channels with high student audiences such as Nickelodeon, MTV and VH-1. Because the ads are misleading, you think you are downloading "free" or "low-cost" ringtones. It's easy to get caught. The service terms and conditions in tiny print flash too quickly on the screen for anyone to read. Often the language is confusing and misleading. You don't know what's happened until the bill arrives. You or your parents are then stuck with big charges you didn't know you'd agreed to. Finding out how to un-subscribe can be very difficult.

Why do mobile phone services put up with these "independent contractors" who mislead and fleece their customers of big bucks? Downloads of ringtones and games (and other content) make money for the mobile phone companies because the third parties providing the downloads pay them fees. And downloading is popular. A survey by IDC, a technology market research firm, of mobile users last year found that more than half of respondents in Europe and about 25 percent in the United States had downloaded a ringtone.

So what can you do about the problem?

Step 1: Educate yourself. Plenty of online articles, blogs, petitions and general gripes are available on websites like PC World which recount stories from both the United States and Europe. Remember, when things are advertised as free, there's usually a catch. So do your homework and don't let hype cloud your judgment.

Step 2: Download ringtones and games from secure places such as your mobile service provider's website. If you want to use an "independent" service, go to their website and check out the deal thoroughly. Check their privacy policy, too; many companies readily share information about you with other parties.

Step 3: Complain to your mobile phone company about misleading or fraudulent services. Consumer advocates and concerned groups have begun to file lawsuits and formal complaints. Your voice counts!

Wireless customers are getting fed up and letting their companies know what they think of unscrupulous text messaging companies who send unsolicited text and then charge for it.If you've been "trapped" by such a scheme, let your company's customer service department know what you think.

Good luck!

Cheer, Will