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2011 Spring Issue: Wireless Special Issue

 

Table of Contents

Wireless Parental Control Survey

Parents can just say No! with a little help from technology Overview of parental controls at top wireless carriers

By Alegra Howard

Parents have plenty to monitor these days when it comes to protecting their children from various missteps involving technology and social media. And many parents want tools to limit expensive voice and data “overage rates” charged when monthly wireless plan allotments are exceeded.

Consumer Action’s new survey of parental control services at the top six national wireless carriers finds that carriers are responding to parental concerns by providing more services (mostly web-based) to help monitor and restrict teens’ cell phone usage. But the controls can’t restrict all bad behaviors.

Parental controls typically require parents (or account administrators) to manage their preferences through online accounts. Using an online dashboard, parents can manage the settings on the phone lines included in their family plans. Some parental controls can be set with the help of customer service.

Surveyed companies Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular all offer some form of parental control services. Due to the pre-pay/pay-as-you-go nature of Metro PCS plans, this top-six wireless carrier doesn’t offer parental controls and blocking functions.

(A chart of services offered by all companies can be downloaded HERE.)

T-Mobile offered the most parental control services (some for an additional monthly fee). AT&T and Verizon also offer a wide variety of parental controls. Sprint provides the most controls for free (as part of a monthly service plan).

Limitations

However we found that not all parental controls are fail-proof in restricting teens from accessing adult content online when using smart phones. Many smart phones, like the iPhone and Blackberry, make it possible for users to avoid the content blockers parents put in place by leaving the phone’s mobile network and setting the phone to a Wi-Fi connection. Once outside the carrier’s mobile network, these tools don’t always work.

Most surveyed carriers offer parents the ability to restrict SMS (short message service) text messages, calls, access to the web and multimedia downloads. Web content filters allow parents to restrict access to “mature” online sites and content. But, as noted, users of new smart devices are able to get around these restrictions via their wireless Internet and other search capabilities.

The ability to restrict the sending and receiving of pictures and videos is widely available among surveyed carriers, with the exception of Metro PCS. The functions and capabilities of certain phones, including the iPhone and Blackberry, which uses its own web browsers, make it hard for carriers to restrict absolutely the ability to send and receive multimedia.

Texts while driving

Consumer Action found that the technology needed to restrict cell phone use while driving is not yet widely available from carriers. T-Mobile is the sole carrier surveyed that offers the ability to restrict texting while driving and this is only on its LG Optimus Plus phones.

However, we found that there are alternative apps and software parents can purchase to limit the ability to send and receive calls and texts while a phone is in motion. These apps are designed for employers to monitor employee phones but can also work for parental monitoring. (See I'm watching you.)

Avoiding overage fees

Time permissions allow parents to restrict when a child’s phone can send and receive calls and texts. For example, parents can restrict activity during school hours or after a certain hour, such as 10 p.m. Usage allowance restrictions can limit the number of texts, minutes or dollars a phone is allotted in order to protect the account’s owner from high overage fees.

Location tracking

Many carriers provide parents with the ability to track the locations of the phones listed on their account. Parents can monitor a phone’s location in real time by logging into their online account. Some charge a fee for this service (usually when custom reporting services are offered). Customizable tracking reports send notifications when children arrive at school, after school activities, etc. Phones must have GPS capability in order to use this tracking function.

Most third-party parental control apps have one of two purposes: to restrict a phone from being used while in motion or to restrict certain phone apps from being used. Parental monitoring applications are also available. These apps do not restrict a phone’s use, but they provide detailed reports of its exact use (texts and calls sent and received, photos sent and received, times of day a phone is used, location tracking, etc.). Most of these applications are available by paid subscription. (See I'm watching you for more about these alternatives.)

Got smartphone, will travel? Not so fast…

By Linda Sherry

Your smartphone is a wonderful little device. It’s so useful you can’t leave home without it. Check email, look for directions, make a phone call, while away time with a game of solitaire—you can do it all on the go. With summer vacation looming, you’re probably thinking, “What a great tool to have with me on the road.” But before you fly off into the sunset—especially overseas—there are important things to consider.

Cost. You probably know your smartphone needs a data plan in addition to a voice plan. Maybe you are lucky enough to have an unlimited data plan—they aren’t cheap but you don’t have to worry about overages. Unfortunately, they apply only in the U.S. When you go abroad, you encounter international data rates that typically offer very little for a large cost—even when you sign up for an international data-roaming plan.

Voice. Don’t assume your phone will work in foreign lands. Check if your current device has international roaming capability (not all do) and if the carrier needs to turn it on before it will work.

CDMA and GSM: What’s the difference?

In determining whether your phone will work when you take it to other countries, you need to know the mobile technology in use at your destination. Many AT&T and T-Mobile phones work abroad, while Verizon and Sprint customers probably need a loaner phone if they don’t have one of the few specialized models that work overseas. CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is the technology used by Verizon and Sprint, while GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), in standard use worldwide, is the technology used by AT&T and T-Mobile.

If you have a CDMA model and you are traveling to Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa or other areas that use GSM technology, you may be able to borrow or rent a phone that works while you are away. Verizon offers its customers a free loaner phone and can set the phone to keep existing number. Sprint offers rental phones at rates of $45 for a one-week rental to $100 for a three-month rental.

If your phone will work where you are going, ask your carrier if it has discount plans you can enroll in temporarily during your trip. Typically, for a monthly fee you can shave about one-third—sometimes much more—off the cost of each minute of your calls. If your phone won’t work where you are going, ask your carrier if it lends or rents international phones for use by its traveling customers.

Mobile network. Even if your phone is capable of browsing the Internet while abroad, roaming internationally or accessing international data networks costs significantly more than at home. If you borrow or rent a data-ready device from your carrier, make sure you also purchase an international data package, but remember that international packages are limited. If you spend a lot of time browsing the Web, you will quickly exceed your data allowance and pay full international data rates. On many new smartphones, even CDMA models, you can set your smartphone to Wi-Fi and use your phone to browse the Internet without eating up your data plan allotment. (You often can use Wi-Fi even when your phone is out of range of your carrier’s mobile network.) JiWire (jiwire.com) has a directory of hot spots (free and paid). Boingo (boingo.com) gives you unlimited access to more than 200,000 hot spots around the world for $7.95 per month. You may even be able to use VOIP (voice over internet) applications like Skype on Wi-Fi to make and receive calls.

Data. Some carriers offer buckets of data, while others charge for usage. While AT&T and Verizon offer flat rate international data packages, they are pretty limited. Verizon offers 25 MB or 200 MB plans in Canada and Mexico, and in Europe (for use with compatible loaner phones), 25 MB and 70 MB plans. Loading the home page of CNN.com can use 1.22 MB of data, so if you loaded CNN 20 times you would have used up your 25 MB allowance. After you use your allowance, overage rates apply and are billed based on the amount of data you use. (See international data plan comparison for rates.) T-Mobile and Sprint (on rented phones, if applicable) bill for the data you use while traveling. As an example, Sprint says that while abroad, checking the weather just once on http://www.weather.com could cost you $25.39 (1.55 MB of data—1587 KB—at $0.016 per KB).

Apps. An application, or app, is a piece of software that can run on your smartphone or other data-ready device. Apps can help you work smarter, stay informed, share information and provide entertainment. But apps are little data hogs and they often run in the background, communicating behind your back with their creators and ad servers, eating into your data allowance. For example, a calendar app that you sync between your phone and your computer, eats up your data allowance. Apps can even wake up your phone after you have put it to sleep and access your carrier’s wireless network by themselves. Before traveling overseas, make sure you turn off “data roaming” on your phone, under “settings.” In most cases it is not enough to simply disconnect your mobile network, as an app may turn it back on and you could be charged for data access.

Airplane mode. This setting is designed to allow you to use the non-wireless functions of your phone to listen to music, play games or check your calendar on an airplane during flight. In airplane mode (or flight mode) your mobile phone, text messaging, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are disabled. However, most airlines ask you to turn off (power down) your device during takeoff and landing, instead of just setting it to airplane mode. Check with airlines personnel on the flight.

Wi-Fi. Set on Wi-Fi, your phone can connect to the Internet when it’s within range of a wireless Internet network. (On most data-ready devices and smartphones, you can switch to Wi-Fi under the Settings menu.) The wireless network could be at your home if you have a wireless router attached to your internet modem, or it could be at a hotel that offers wireless internet, or a public space that offers free Wi-Fi such as McDonalds, Starbucks or an internet cafe.

When traveling, you can turn off data roaming and set your phone to Wi-Fi to use it for browsing the Web or sending email without being charged by your carrier. It’s vital to understand the correct settings, so speak to your carrier before you leave the U.S. You can experiment with the settings at home if you have wireless Internet service. Some apps won’t work as they are designed to work only on your carrier’s mobile network.

TIP: You can use Skype Internet calling service (http://www.skype.com) to make low-cost calls on the Internet. Skype has free apps for use with Wi-Fi on iPhone and Android smartphones.

Monitor usage. Most carriers let you set up on online account where you can monitor voice and data usage. (Reminder, you can avoid using your expensive wireless data by logging onto your carrier’s website in Wi-Fi mode at your hotel or a Wi-Fi hotspot.)

Use landlines. In many countries, you can buy prepaid phone cards that allow you to dial home or make local calls from public phones. Or, consider OneSuite (http://www.onesuite.com), an online seller of super-cheap phone minutes, with access numbers in many countries. Using its local access numbers (instead of the toll-free numbers) can save you even more.

International voice plans

Consumer Action strongly recommends that you call your carrier before you leave the U.S. so that you fully understand the options and costs of international roaming.

We’ve pulled together a sampling of international plans from top carriers, but companies change their plans frequently, so use this information only as a general guide:

Verizon: Very limited options that do not include European countries. You can make calls in Canada (69¢ per minute) and Mexico (99¢) without a plan. However, the company offers a free global phone (with your existing phone number) for vacationers traveling in areas (such as Europe) where Verizon phones can’t access the network. Shipping is $19.99 for the loaner phone. Where available, you can sign up for a monthly Global Value Plan for $4.99 per month to receive discounted rates in countries where your smartphone or loaner data-ready device will work.

AT&T: World Traveler plan is $5.99 a month and gives you discounted rates on calls in more than 100 countries. Examples: Discounted roaming rates for most of Europe are 99¢ per minute (normally $1.29). Mexico’s discounted rates are 59¢ per minute (normally 99¢).

T-Mobile: WorldClass International Roaming (activation is free) gives you rates of $1.49 per minute in Mexico; $1.29 in Europe. With the International Discounted Calling plan at $5 per month, lower rates apply: Mexico: 5¢ per minute (to a landline) to 25¢ (to a mobile phone); Europe: 6¢ per minute (to a landline) to 22¢ (to a mobile phone). Text messages are 25¢ for each message sent or received.

Sprint: $4.99 per month for Sprint’s Worldwide plan with discounted rates while traveling. (For travelers to Canada, $2.99 per month gets you a 20¢ per minute rate instead of 59¢.) But you don’t see a discount in many countries from the full roaming rate, so check the rates where you will be traveling before signing up for the additional plan. In Europe, (Spain was one of the few European countries where you get discount: $1.69 vs. $1.99 per minute.) Mexico: $1.69/minute. Europe: $1.29-$2.49 per minute (with loaner phone, depending on country).

International data plans

Verizon: Global Data options include plans for Canada and Mexico (75 MB for $30 per month or 200 MB for $100 per month). Overage rate in Canada: $0.002/KB ($2.05/MB). Overage rate in Mexico: $0.005/KB ($5.12/MB). Global Data plans for the Caribbean and Europe (with loaner phone): 25 MB for $30 per month or 70 MB for $100 per month. Overage rate in Caribbean and Europe (with loaner phone): $0.005/KB ($5.12/MB). (Overage example: 70 megabytes (MB) = 71,680 kilobytes (KB) @ $0.005/KB = $358.40.)

AT&T: International Data Package (Works in 100 countries. Must be added to an existing domestic data plan.) Available discount packages range from $24.99 (20 MB) to $199.99 (200 MB) per month. Overage rates: $0.005/KB. (Overage example: 200 megabytes (MB) = 204,800 kilobytes (KB) @ 0.005 per KB = $1,024.)

T-Mobile: Data services are billed by the megabyte while roaming internationally: $10 per MB in Canada or $15 per MB in all other countries.

Sprint: Data services are billed by the kilobyte when you travel internationally (with your own phone or rental, whichever is applicable). Sprint international data costs $0.016 per KB (In Canada or on “Evolution-Data Optimized” networks, $0.002 per KB). Texts cost 50¢ to send and 15¢ to receive. Unlimited International text service is $10/month. At $0.016 per KB, Sprint's website says sending an email with one picture attached would cost you $16.38.

WirelessEd project launched

By Ruth Susswein

With email, streaming video, games and time saving apps all in the palm of our hands, today’s wireless options are vast and complex. As being digitally connected on-the-go becomes part of our daily lives, Consumer Action wanted to make clear, cost saving information about wireless services easily accessible to consumers.

To provide this service, Consumer Action launched its WirelessEd project in March 2011 with the sponsorship of AT&T.

The project offers multilingual consumer education materials and interactive tools—all featured on WirelessED (http://www.wirelessed.org), a new online resource on how to get the best value from wireless services. The site offers a data calculator, cost saving tips, the latest news on wireless services and advice on managing mobile and data service plans.

“Today’s wireless consumer has a myriad of choices in devices, plans for voice, texting and data, as well as which carrier to go with,” said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action. “Because we’ve been doing telecommunications education since the 1980s, it makes sense that we guide consumers in navigating the new mobile marketplace.”

With so many decisions between wireless plans, contract or prepaid, unlimited or pay per use, smartphone options, and more, WirelessEd’s consumer-friendly tools help you make sense of the many options available today.

On the free site, consumers can estimate their monthly data usage and compare wireless plans to choose the most appropriate service. The site’s data usage calculator allows you to estimate how much mobile data you are likely to consume by the day or by the month. Plug in your best guess as to how many emails you will send and receive, how much time you expect to spend on various online activities, and click for your estimates. Having this information helps you avoid costly overage charges.

Visitors can sign up for monthly emails to remind you to keep track of your plan allowance and avoid unexpected and expensive overage charges. The site also offers a widget to help other websites link to WirelessED.

Free multilingual brochures: Using Mobile Data Wisely and Choosing and Using Mobile Devices are available to read or download. A third publication, on international roaming with your phone outside the U.S., will be released in June.

The new WirelessEd brochures are part of a complete training module that Consumer Action will offer to community groups to help them train clients on how to manage their wireless costs.

Consumer Action will hold several train-the-trainer roundtables for staff of our network of community-based organizations in the coming year. So far, roundtables are planned for San Francisco, Washington, DC and Boston, Mass.

I’m watching you

Software to keep children (and your employees) under a watchful eye

There’s a thriving business in monitoring software for mobile phones designed for employers and parents.

Privacy concerns aside, the services offer various ways for mobile phone owners to keep tabs on (and control) phones used by employees or family members. One program can prevent a designated phone from delivering or receiving texts or emails when it’s in a moving vehicle, while another can lock functions on a smartphone to keep the kids from dialing China or browsing the Web during school.

Once software is installed on the phones, the administrator—usually the primary account holder—can remotely control many of the features, turning them on and off at will.

Drive Safe by Phone Guard Available for iPhone, Blackberry, Blackberry Storm, Android, Nokia Website: http://www.phoneguard.com Cost: $29.99 per year or $4.99 per month

Drive Safe “safe driving mobile application” is software that allows authorized phone administrators (parents or employers) to disable certain functions of a mobile phone when the designated phone is in a moving vehicle. If the speed of the vehicle is higher than the threshold set by the administrator, PhoneGuard locks the screen, preventing the driver from reading or writing text messages, emails or doing other activities that require looking at a screen. When the car is stopped for more than five seconds, texting and other data functions resume. Any missed text messages are made available when the vehicle stops.

Administrators set the controls using an online dashboard, and can receive reports and alerts about the phones being monitored.

Time Out: Governs the time that the keyboard works to prevent text messaging or Internet browsing during school or work hours.

Request Permission: Allows a phone’s user to request permission to use the keyboard of the cell phone for a set time.

Speed Control: Alerts administrators if the cell phone travels faster then the preset maximum speed threshold. Also delivers a Google Maps Link to show the location of a cell phone and the speed at which it’s traveling.

App Lock by Creative Core Available for Android phones Website: Android Marketplace (https://market.android.com) Cost: Free/Pro Key version is $1.99

AppLock lets you password-protect any apps you choose—including apps for SMS (text messaging), email, pictures, calendar, etc. There is a Pro Key version without ads that unlocks additional features.

eBlaster by SpectorSoft Cost: $69.99 per year Available for Android and Blackberry Website: http://www.spectorsoft.com

Subscription-based service sends all recorded activity from designated phones to the administrator’s email address. The service also:

  • Records both sides of all text message conversations and retains the data - even if the message history is deleted from the phone.
  • Logs all voice calls made or received, noting the phone number and duration of the call.
  • Records all websites visited using the phone’s browser.
  • Records all photos taken using the phone.
  • Tracks the phone’s approximate location, based on the nearest cell phone tower.

Administrators can choose to receive the activity report at regular intervals from once a day to every 30 minutes, or elect to enable instant notification to immediately receive information on texts and photos. Once the software is installed on a phone, administrators can change configuration and notification from an online dashboard.

iHound Mobile Cost: $3.99 for a three month subscription Available for iPhone, Android, and iPad Website: http://www.ihoundsoftware.com

This location tracking app with reporting capability can locate family members via GPS on the mobile device being tracked.

Parents can also configure the software for “geo-fencing”—a feature that ensures children stay where they’re supposed to be. If the app detects that child is not at school during school hours, for example, it sends an alert to the administrator.

The software offers the ability to locate lost or stolen mobile devices. If the device is lost or stolen, iHound can lock and erase personal information contained on the phone.

— Alegra Howard

That’s not cool: Social pressure aimed at reducing bad phone behavior

Corporations, networks, volunteer groups and even Oprah Winfrey have created campaigns to prevent digital abuses such as texting while driving and sending inappropriate photos via cell phone.

MTV launched A Thin Line to educate teens on digital abuse and the possible ramifications of engaging in “sexting,” the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between mobile phones.

No Phone Zone

Winfrey’s No Phone Zone Pledge campaign aims to stop texting while driving. “Let it be the end, the end of you using a cell phone or sending a text message when you are behind the wheel of a moving vehicle,” says Winfrey.

AT&T created a 10-minute Web documentary titled The Last Text, featuring sobering stories of real individuals whose lives have been adversely affected by texting behind the wheel.

Additional resources

  • National Safety Council’s Teen Driver
  • CTIA - The Wireless Association’s Safe Driving and On the Road, Off the Phone
  • The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s That’s Not Cool is a national public education campaign that uses digital examples of controlling, pressuring and threatening behavior to raise awareness about teen dating abuse.
  • Common Sense Media’s Talking About Sexting offers advice about impulsive behavior by youth that can backfire.
  • Get Parental Controls is a volunteer-run website offering information and reviews about parental controls for Internet, e-mail, social networks, media players, video games and consoles, and mobile phones.
  • 4NetSafety, a partnership of Sprint and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, addresses perils that young people might encounter online and offers resources to encourage positive dialogue about internet safety.

Your mobile phone may snoop on you

In the rush to get new technologies to the marketplace, privacy can be last on the agenda—and mobile phones are no exception. While there are many intrusions into one’s personal affairs, attempts to sell something are at the heart of many questionable practices. Your mobile phone, always with you and usually turned on, can give marketers many clues about how to get into your pocketbook. Google’s Sumit Agarwal, in an infamous interview, called mobile phones the “ultimate ad vehicle.”

Generally, opinion about tracking people to sell them something falls into two categories. The “value added” camp says targeting of offers to your specific interests brings new opportunities for saving time and cutting through marketplace clutter to get exactly what you want. On the other side, strong fears exist about intrusive behavior, location tracking and real-time monitoring.

Fraud is another concern, from vishing (“voice phishing”) to smishing (“text phishing”), both techniques used by scam artists to convince you to reveal personal information they can use to commit account takeover and identity theft. (Never share confidential information in response to an unsolicited email, text or call.)

The Electronic Freedom Foundation warns, “The security of mobile operating systems is not as mature or as strong as that of workstation and server operating systems.”

Customizing user experience

The news program “60 Minutes” in May interviewed Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone, who told the program’s Morley Safer that we need to change our “mindset” about privacy. “There are people who object to somebody monitoring their buying habits. I’m delighted if people know what I buy because they’re gonna tailor their marketing to me and the products that are available to me, to my tastes. Well, that’s a good thing,” said Cooper.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, a top investigator of mobile marketing and its perils, like many privacy advocates isn’t so keen on the techniques companies use to track your preferences. Chester has said, “Mobile marketers have refined a wide range of sophisticated practices that allow them to track, analyze, and target millions of Americans who increasingly rely on their phones for information.” Unfortunately, says Chester, policies governing consumer privacy on the mobile Web have failed to keep pace with these new marketing practices.

Privacy advocates say that mobile and location marketing are quickly reshaping the digital landscape and this process is resulting in unprecedented merging of online, offline, and location information on a consumer. As early as 2006, the Center for Digital Democracy (with U.S. PIRG) asked the Federal Trade Commission to take a serious look at the “mobile marketing ecosystem” and its impact on consumer privacy rights.

The FTC, which held roundtable hearings on mobile marketing in 2008, has said it is working with the industry to improve self-regulatory enforcement and will take law enforcement action as needed.

You have my permission

Unlike Internet tracking by advertisers, most mobile marketing—voice and text—requires opt-in consent. If marketers want to call or text your cell, they must have your express consent.

Data-ready smartphones, capable of accessing the Internet through wireless networks as well as WiFi, have popularized the use of apps—small software programs offered for free by a variety of companies. For example, you can get apps for finding your way, banking booking travel or getting restaurant recommendations. Many apps are free, or so them seem, because you might be trading some information about yourself in return for the free service. Unlike websites, most apps don’t have privacy policies.

Most reputable apps do let you know what kind of information about you they are accessing before you accept their terms. The problem is, if you don’t accept their terms, you can’t use the app. And although you may be forewarned, you are rarely told what the app developers do with your information, such as sharing or selling it to third parties. App developers and their third party partners may be located in countries without data protection laws.

Unique device identifiers

Smartphone apps use unique device identifiers (UDIDs) to distinguish one phone from another. Unlike website cookies, you can’t change or block the sharing of your smartphone’s UDID. Apple’s iPhones and competing Android phones employ these numbers.

Lawsuits have been filed against Apple charging that the iPhone transmits personal information to advertisers without user consent. According to one of the lawsuits, Lalo v. Apple, filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California: “Some apps are also selling additional information to ad networks, including users’ location, age, gender, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation and political views.”

The Lalo suit also names app makers Pandora, Paper Toss, the Weather Channel and Dictionary.com as defendants along with Apple.

Location-awareness

Many mobile apps use “geo-location” data from the user’s mobile device to pinpoint the physical location of the phone. The ability to identify the location of the phone (and by extension, its owner) has led to real-time “geo-marketing” offering discounts and promotions from nearby businesses, as well as apps that let your friends and family know where you are. Photo, music, games and other apps may access this data.

In December, the Wall Street Journal tested 101 apps for Android and iPhone, and discovered that many of them automatically share information with third parties, including users ages, gender, locations and UDIDs.

Critics charge that geo-location data can be dangerous in the wrong hands. By sharing your location you may be letting people know you’re away from home, opening yourself to robbery.

Some apps let you disable location tracking. Go to the app’s settings to find out if it stores location data and determine if the setting can be disabled.

U.S. Representatives Edward Markey (D-Mass) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairs of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, sent letters to the CEOs of the four major U.S. wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—querying them about their data collection, storage and disclosure practices.

The lawmakers sent the letters following a recent New York Times story reporting that a German mobile phone company tracked the locations and destinations of one of its customers. The lawmakers asked about the companies’ compliance with Section 222 of the Communications Act, a provision that Rep. Markey authored, that requires companies to get express authorization from their customers for use, disclosure or access to location information for commercial purposes.

“This case gets to the root concerns about privacy in a digital age,” said Rep. Barton in a press release. “Hundreds of millions of us are carrying cell phones right now. Are we being tracked? And if so, why don’t we know it?

Separately, federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating whether several smartphone app makers, including Pandora, are transmitting customer information without proper disclosure.

Law enforcement

While it remains controversial, police and law enforcement agencies track cell phone locations during criminal investigations, and not always with a warrant. Police have obtained “retrospective” data from wireless billing records as well as “prospective” data revealing real time location of a mobile device.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) holds that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies do not need to obtain a search warrant before tracking real time locations of cell phones. But some magistrates and district court justices have disagreed. As Congress considers rewriting the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, the DOJ is asking for a uniform national standard to overturn court decisions to require a warrant. In testimony to Congress in April, James Baker, associate deputy attorney general, said that having to seek court approval before tracking cell phones would hinder police investigations.

Privacy advocates—including Consumer Action—and industry groups formed the Digital Due Process Coalition to push for ECPA reform. One of coalition’s stated principles is: “A governmental entity may access, or may require a covered entity to provide, prospectively or retrospectively, location information regarding a mobile communications device only with a warrant issued based on a showing of probable cause.”

Mobile privacy tips
  • Protect your phone from theft or use by unauthorized persons.
  • Password the phone and lock it when you’re not using it.
  • Don’t share personal information in response to an unsolicited email, text or call.
  • Learn how you can remotely erase the data on your phone if it is lost or stolen.
  • Don’t save passwords in the online accounts you visit using your mobile browser.
  • Be cautious about shopping or banking while your phone is connected to a public Wi-Fi network.
  • Report a missing phone immediately.
  • You can’t be tracked if your phone is turned off.
  • Contact your carrier to place a password on your cell phone billing account.

Resources

How to use data wisely

Smart use of smartphones and other mobile devices

By Ruth Susswein

As we turn to smartphones and tablet computers such as iPads for more daily activities, it’s clear that these mobile devices can enrich our lives and help us make better use of our time. But it’s important to know how to manage usage and avoid unexpected costs.

Data usage

Whether you’re using a mobile device to download emails, visit social media sites like Facebook, get directions, or download games, music, or applications (apps), you need to know how much of your monthly data “bank” each activity consumes.

Downloading and uploading photos, music and video files can eat up massive amounts of data. Here are some common activities and the estimated data they consume:

  • One email (text only) uses 20 kilobytes (KB) of data.
  • One email with Word/PowerPoint attachment uses 300 KB.
  • One app/game/song uses 4 megabytes (MB).
  • One minute of standard-quality streaming video (such as YouTube) uses 2 MB.

Data service plans

Heavy data users should try to purchase an unlimited data plan for a monthly fee, but there are other billing models available if your data needs are more limited:

  • Pay per use data plans. For example, you may be charged $1.99 per MB of data use.
  • Metered use data plans. For a monthly fee, you pay for a set amount of data, such as $15 per month for 200 MB, or $25 per month for 2GB.
  • Unlimited use data plans. You can still buy them, but companies are moving to eliminate unlimited options. While sometimes pricey, they are the best option for avoiding data overage charges.
  • Prepaid data plans. You don’t need a credit check or a contract, but you may pay more for the phone and the service than you would with a “post-paid” plan. Some prepaid plans offer data/text/talk packages for one low monthly rate. Others sell the three services separately. While you can find unlimited voice/text plans, data use may be capped. (For more on prepaid wireless plans, see page XX.)

Comparing costs

Compare all costs—including fees—before choosing a data service plan. Check activation fees, taxes, surcharges, early termination fees as well as overage charges. Overage rates apply when you go over your voice or data limit. Overage rates often are significantly higher than plan rates. Include taxes and any other government surcharges, which can add 20% or more to your monthly charges.

To decide which plan best suits your needs, try the usage estimators available on Consumer Action’s WirelessED website (http://www.wirelessed.org). Click on “Tools” and use the calculator to estimate how much data you’re likely to use each month based on the online activities you choose. Many carrier websites have similar tools.

Researching plans

Once you’ve got your data estimate, research mobile plans to get the following information:

  • Length of contract. You might want to buy your own phone to avoid a long-term contract.
  • Contract changes. Will your contract be extended if you opt for a new plan part way through your contract?
  • Overage alerts. What happens when you get close to exceeding your voice or data allowance. Will you get a text or email warning? Can you set up alerts at the carriers’ website?
  • Coverage areas. Will your phone work where you want it to work?
  • Price of device. Carriers heavily subsidize new devices for customers who lock into two-year contracts. But you can buy your own phone at an electronics retailer—just make sure it will work on your carriers network.
  • Battery life. How long will the device’s battery last until it needs to be recharged?
  • Parental controls/blocks. Most carriers offer ways for parents to set controls on how kids use their phones, as well as to keep tabs on the whereabouts of children’s phones. (See Parental Controls Survey.)

For more ideas on what to ask when preparing to purchase wireless service visit CTIA - The Wireless Association website (http://www.ctia.org) and click on Wireless Consumer Checklist. You’ll find handy forms to use when comparing devices and mobile service plans.

TIP: When shopping for a new phone and service plan, check for a “grace period”. A grace period gives you a month to test out a phone to see if it fits your needs without being hit with a pricey early termination fee (ETF).

Apps

Smartphones (like iPhone, Palm, Android and Blackberry) and tablets (like iPad) are handheld computers. They rely on software applications—or apps—to perform their functions, such as getting directions, posting photos or playing games. Some apps are pre-installed on the device. Others can be downloaded from mobile app markets you can access from your smartphone or the Internet. Many apps are free. Paid apps generally cost between 99¢ to $5 and if you download them on your phone, they are charged to your phone bill or to a credit card you provide. Some may charge a monthly fee. Your carrier can help you set monthly limits on app purchases so that you can control spending. Companies also offer parental controls on apps, ringtone purchases and more. (See Parental Controls Survey.)

Downloading apps uses data from your data plan, about 5 megabytes (MG) per download on average, but some require as much as 80 MG per download. (To avoid using your mobile data allowance, set your smartphone or other data-ready device to Wi-Fi to access your home wireless network or a Wi-Fi “hotspot” to download apps. Turn off Wi-Fi when not in use as it drains your battery.

TIP: Many apps continue to use data as they “sync” with the Internet to stay updated. This can deplete your data allowance if you are not on an unlimited data plan. You can turn off “always running” apps from your Settings menu and manually sync them when you need to. Since every device is different, contact your carrier to ask for instructions.

Manage data save money

Data management tools can help you avoid exceeding your allowance and facing expensive overage charges. There are several apps you can download to alert you if you are about to reach your data usage limit. Most carriers offer their own data management app, which may come pre-installed on your device.

All major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) offer you the opportunity to receive usage information via text. Some will set up an alert to warn you before you reach your usage limit. Most offer this service for free on their websites, but more sophisticated parental controls are fee-based.

If your phone or device is Wi-Fi enabled you can change a setting to take advantage of free Wi-Fi service instead of eating into your data service plan. At home you’ll need a wireless router to access Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi “hot-spots” can be found for free or by subscription in cafes, airports and other places. Check out the Wi-Fi Free Spot website (http://www.wififreespot.com) to find hotspots. However, avoid using public Wi-Fi hotspots for banking, purchasing or any activity that requires you to enter confidential information online.

Examples of mobile data usage

  • One email (text only) uses 20 kilobytes (KB) of data
  • One email with Word/ Powerpoint attachment uses 300 KB
  • One app/game/ song uses 4 megabytes (MB)
  • One minute of standard quality streaming video (such as YouTube) uses 2 MB

Note: 1,024 kilobytes (KB) = 1 megabyte (MB) and 1,024 megabytes = 1 gigabyte (GB). Source: AT&T Mobility

So long to unlimited data?

Companies move to take all-you-can-eat mobile data plans off the menu

By Ruth Susswein

Smartphones are useful, but they’re not cheap. There’s the upfront cost to get a device and the ongoing monthly expense for service. And that doesn’t include any apps, games or add-ons you buy. Before you take on a second job to manage the growing expense, here are a few things to know.

Wireless companies complain that consumers are clogging networks faster than they can build and maintain them. While this may result in the disappearance of unlimited data plans, you can still find them at some companies.

Unlimited data plans allow you to access email and the Web, download/upload photos, get directions, play games, and more without having to pay per use or risk emptying your allotted “bucket” and getting hit with hefty overage fees. Ideally, you’ll want a plan that allows you access to unlimited data, texting and talking for one low monthly fee.

At press time, Verizon Wireless was offering an unlimited data package for $29.99 a month (with a two-year contract). The data plan must be added to a voice plan, and optional text plans are available. (Without a plan, texts are 20¢ each.)

Verizon's individual voice plans run from $39.99 (450 minutes) to $69.99 (unlimited minutes). Family plans with two lines run from $69.99 (700 minutes) to $119.99 (unlimited minutes). (The cost increases if you have more than two family lines.)

You can add text plans to the voice plans for $5 (250 messages) to $20 (5,000 messages).

After you consume two gigabytes (GB), Verizon data speeds slow down but access remains unlimited—for now. Verizon executives have called the unlimited data offer “temporary.” The company is expected to eliminate its unlimited data plan some time this summer, when the company will move to tiered pricing plans, as its main rival AT&T did last year.

AT&T offers unlimited data packages (with a two-year contract) only to current customers, also for $30 per month. New customers are offered two plans: $15 per month plan for 200 megabytes (MG) of data or a $25 per month plan for 2 gigabytes (GB) of data. For an extra $20 per month AT&T offers “tethering” which allows you to link your smartphone to your laptop to provide it with Internet access on the go. With tethering, AT&T’s $45 monthly package includes 4GB of data usage. But keep an eye out for recent promotions that offer 4GB at the $25 a month rate—including tethering.

How much data do you need?

If you want to know which data plan to buy, AT&T offers some usage estimates for common mobile activities. Two GB per month would give you 10,000 text-only emails, 1,500 emails with a document attached, 4,000 web page visits, 500 uploads and downloads of photos to a social media site (such as Facebook etc.), and 200 minutes of streaming standard-quality, one-minute YouTube videos. (High definition video uses much more data.) Some users might be quite satisfied with the lower tiered package of 200 MG, particularly because the new smart devices allow you to access wireless Internet at home and public Wi-Fi hot spots without depleting your mobile data allowance.

You can also estimate your data usage by visiting Consumer Action’s new WirelessEd website (http://www.wirelessed.org) and click on tools.

Many carriers alert you in advance when you are about to exceed your data allowance and face overage charges. AT&T sends customers reminder texts when they reach 65 percent, 90 percent and 100 percent of their data allotment.

TIP: To obtain an unlimited service plan call your carrier and suggest that you are thinking about switching carriers. (This is only if you wouldn’t face an Early Termination fee if you switched.) Bloggers say that AT&T is making its unlimited data package available to iPhone users who are not under contract and who call to complain about discontinued unlimited data plans. Now that Verizon offers iPhone service, AT&T may play ball just to keep you.

T-Mobile offers an unlimited data/talk/text package for $80 per month. Its Even More package says it can save you several hundred dollars per year over other major carriers. Here too, unlimited data means that after you've used 2 GB, data will run at a slower speed. T-Mobile says the average 4G smartphone user consumes about 1GB per month. (4G devices use more data than 3G).

AT&T recently reported that it would honor all T-Mobile rates if the sale of T-Mobile to AT&T were completed, but there are no assurances as to how long that guarantee will last.

Sprint/Nextel has unlimited data plans that range from $50 (for existing customers) to $99 per month. Some of the carrier’s lower-cost packages cap calling minutes at 450 or 900 minutes a month. If it’s a family plan you need, be sure to check how many phones are covered in the package. It may cover only two devices with additional monthly fees for each extra line.

Will your phone work?

If you don’t buy the phone from the carrier you plan to use, be sure that the phone you purchase is compatible with the network service you buy. Most companies require you to use particular phones with their system.

For example, Boost Mobile offers a low priced monthly data package—without a contract—but it requires that you use a proprietary Blackberry Curve phone it sells for $180. Its Shrinkage unlimited data package costs $60 per month and the rate is reduced to $55 a month if you pay on time for six months. The monthly price continues to shrink, with a bottom line of $35 per month with on-time payments. (Read more about Boost Mobile's prepaid wireless offerings in the next story.)

Grab an unlimited data plan while you can, but don’t forget to check the basics, too. Make sure the carrier offers coverage where you need it and consider the downside of any plan that requires you to lock in for two years. Some phones are only compatible with the carrier’s network, so while you might get an initial deep discount on your device, if it fails or is damaged irreparably during your contract you’ll have to pay full price to replace it.

Prepaid wireless: Service without commitment

By Ruth Susswein

While smartphone carriers may encourage you to commit to a two-year contract for data services, you have an alternative—prepaid wireless plans.

Prepaid wireless services sell data/voice/text plans by the month or in “buckets” containing a specific amount of minutes or data. You pay upfront before you use the service and you can avoid signing a long-term contract. Prepaid plans eliminate a credit check, a contract and a possible Early Termination Fee (ETF) when you end your relationship with the carrier.

Prepaid wireless was once designed for those whose credit history prevented them from qualifying for a contract plan, but now companies market these services to a general market. Recognizing that many consumers want more control over wireless costs, major carriers have joined the pre-paid wireless market. In April, AT&T began offering a pre-paid smartphone data plan through the service GoPhone, with plans offering 10-500 Megabytes (MB) of data for $5-$25.

Pros and cons

You can expect to pay double or more for a smartphone that is not tied to a contract, and the variety of phones sold with prepaid plans is far more limited, but you have the freedom to choose your carrier and limit your commitment.

TIP: Check the carrier’s coverage area to see if its prepaid plans fit your needs. Some coverage areas focus primarily on the East and West coasts of the U.S., which may or may not work for you.

Even with a prepaid plan there are still several key decisions to make, such as:

  • Is the smartphone you want available with a prepaid plan?
  • Will you use the plan’s talk minutes before they expire?
  • Do you want to initiate payment each month or would you rather payment be automatic?
  • How do rates compare between prepaid and contract offers?
  • What’s the refund policy if not satisfied?

TIP: To estimate how much data you might use, visit Consumer Action’s new WirelessEd website and click on Tools to use the data usage estimator.

Here are examples of widely available prepaid plans:

  • Sprint/Nextel’s Virgin Mobile prepaid plan (with Samsung or Blackberry Curve phones) offers an unlimited data and text package for $25 a month with 300 voice minutes.
  • Sprint/Nextel’s Boost Mobile prepaid service (with Motorola or Blackberry Curve phones) has an unlimited data/talk/text plan for $50 ($60 for Blackberry) with its Shrinkage plan. The Shrinkage plan rewards you with a lower monthly cost if you religiously pay your monthly bill on time. In 18 months you can reduce the cost to $35 per month.
  • T-Mobile (with Android or Nokia phones) offers monthly prepaid plans or pay-as-you-go options. You can choose $30 per month for 1,500 phone minutes/texts and 30 MB of data, $50 a month for unlimited talk/text and 100MG of data or step up to $70 a month and get an unlimited data/talk/text package.
  • Mega retailer Walmart sells prepaid TracFone Straight Talk plans (Nokia phones) with an unlimited data/talk/text plan for $45 that’s good for 30 days.
  • Verizon Wireless has a wider selection of phones with its unlimited prepaid data plans with 450 talk minutes for $65 per month, or unlimited data/text/talk plans for $95 per month.

Prepaid phone minutes may expire in 30 to 90 days. Many plans will roll over unused minutes if you allow the carrier to automatically replenish your plan on a regular basis. If you want a low cost, no commitment plan, consider a limited talk package.

Do your research

Before signing up, check comparison sites like http://www.prepaidwirelessguide.com and www.prepaidreviews.com, and consider local carriers as well as the big guys. Review annual surveys from J.D.Powers & Associates and Consumer Reports reviews to see which prepaid carriers get high marks.

When comparing phones and carriers, don’t get tripped up by terminology. For instance, be aware that “feature” phones are not smartphones. While you may be able to access email and other features, a feature phone has limited capabilities compared to a smartphone.

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a nonprofit organization that has championed the rights of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. Throughout its history, the organization has dedicated its resources to promoting financial literacy and advocating for consumer rights in both the media and before lawmakers to promote economic justice for all. With the resources and infrastructure to reach millions of consumers, Consumer Action is one of the most recognized, effective, and trusted consumer organizations in the nation.

Financial Education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of education resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth financial information, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. Consumer Action also publishes an unbiased Annual Credit Card Survey that exposes excessive prices and anti-consumer practices to help consumers make informed buying choices and elicit change from big business.

Community Outreach. With a special focus on serving low to moderate income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of more than 8,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free mailings of financial education materials in many languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Consumer Action’s rapidly expanding network is the largest and most diverse of its kind.

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