Many consumers think that they should not pay early termination fees when they want to cancel their cell phone services before the terms of the contracts have expired. Sometimes their reasons are valid, such as a loss of service. Other times they're not, such as wanting a new phone that is only offered by another carrier. (If you'd like to save more money, first you'll need to conquer the first step: coming up with the cash. See Top 6 Mindless Money Wasters.)
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Regardless of the reason, consumers don't have many options for getting out of a contract early without paying a fee. The options they do have can be challenging, stressful and time consuming. Here are some options you can try.
Negotiate Your Way Out Over a Materially-Adverse Change to Your Contract
If your cell phone provider changes the pricing of a service you use mid-contract, and this change will cost you more money, you may be able to argue your way out of your contract. By argue we mean ask politely, firmly and repeatedly.
The mere implementation of a change by your carrier isn't likely to be enough to get you out of your contract. If your carrier is increasing its individual text message rate, but you have a text message package and the rate increase won't affect you, you don't really have a leg to stand on. It's hard to say when or if your carrier will change your contract.
Find Someone to Take Over Your Contract
A few websites provide an online marketplace for people wanting to buy and sell partially used cell phone contracts. Before trying to find someone to take over your contract, make sure that your cell phone provider allows it. If so, find out what the procedure is and if there are any fees associated with the transfer. If you want to keep your number, find out what additional steps you need to take to port it.
Three services that facilitate such transfers are Celltradeusa.com, cellswapper.com and TradeMyCellular.com. There may be fees associated with finding a buyer. Celltradeusa charges a one-time $19.99 fee to unlock your mailbox. In other words, you don't have to pay for the service until, or unless, you receive enough messages that you think you'll be able to make a deal. You may also have to offer incentives such as cash, phone accessories or even your phone to convince someone to take your contract. If so, it might be cheaper and easier to pay the early termination fee.
Pay the Fee, but Resell Your Phone to Recoup Part of the Cost
The newer your phone, and the better the condition it's in, the more it will be worth. You can sell just about any phone on eBay as long as you describe its condition accurately. You'll have to pay a small final value fee on the sale price, but if you plan to get a new phone when you change carriers, you might as well limit your losses on your old phone. Don't forget to factor in the time it will take you to list the phone for sale, package it and ship it. Paying the early termination fee could be your best option.
If your conversations with customer service aren't fruitful, and you have a legitimate reason for wanting to exit your contract early, try contacting one or more people at corporate to resolve your complaint. This contact information is often difficult to track down through the company's website, but sometimes consumer activist websites or bloggers will locate the information and publish it online. If you can afford to wait a couple of weeks, you can also try writing a letter.
Remember to explain your situation clearly and concisely, to state what action you want your cell phone company to take, and to be respectful. It's tempting to be rude when you feel you've been wronged, but the person you talk to is rarely responsible for the problem you're trying to solve. Make them sympathize with you rather than putting them on the defensive.
Generate Negative Publicity
If you've truly been cheated by your cell phone company and you've exhausted your other options, a potential blow to the company's reputation might be your only recourse. In June 2010, media coverage convinced Verizon to drop the early termination fee it had charged the widow of a marine who died while serving in Afghanistan. Try pleading your case to a consumer advocacy group or a local media outlet. If they side with you, you may get the publicity you need to avoid the early termination fee.
This route will take up a lot of your time, may be stressful and will add a lot of results with your name in them to search engines. If you value your time, peace of mind and privacy, this option isn't likely to satisfy you. (Charging purchases is not always a no-no. In fact, there are some very sound reasons for choosing this option. See 10 Reasons To Use Your Credit Card.)
The Bottom Line
No one wants to pay an early termination fee, especially one that's in the hundreds of dollars. If you can't live with your cell phone contract any longer and you feel it's worth your time and energy to try to avoid the fee, one of these methods may do the trick.