Can You Hear Me Now?
Some wireless customer service reps will actually help you--but only if you give them all the facts
By Ellen McGirt

(MONEY Magazine) – Q. We signed a two-year cell-phone contract with Cingular Wireless in December 2003, hoping to save money by using it instead of landline service for long-distance calls. But nine months later, we were no longer able to get a signal at our home. We called and complained, but after three months of checking, Cingular said that we were in a poor service area and there was nothing they could do. We would like to be released from our contract, but there is a fee of $150 per phone and we have four phones (one each, for me, my husband, the babysitter and the house). My husband is sick, and we need to be able to call out from home. And we really can't swing the fee. What can we do? LYNN HOOD PATASKALA, OHIO

A. You actually did all the right things. Almost. You called tech support, initiated an investigation, complained persistently (and politely) in writing, even contacted the president's office. The problem, though, is you were complaining about something that Cingular wasn't contractually obligated to provide--and you didn't give Cingular the most important fact about your case.

Naturally, you were irked that the phone didn't work in your house. But Cingular doesn't guarantee wireless service at a particular location (just in a specific area), so they refused to let you out of your contract. Furthermore, their review of your records showed that your phone use was going up, not down.

What they didn't know was why. Your husband isn't merely sick, he's battling Hodgkin's disease, and he spent the summer undergoing radiation treatment and chemotherapy. To update friends and relatives, you often had to shovel your three kids--ages one, five and seven--into your car and drive until you could find a signal to make a call. Not our idea of speed dial.

Your husband's illness and the hardship the phone mess caused your family are the type of extenuating circumstances that any responsible company should consider during the complaint-resolution process. And Cingular would have, if they had known about it. Within one business day of learning from us the details of your situation, Cingular waived the penalty fees, all $600 worth, and let you out of the contract.

When we last checked in, you said your husband was feeling better and was back at work. Good news. Good message too: Behind the red tape that corporations might throw our way, there are real people who can often solve problems, as long as they have all the information. Sometimes the only way to get what you need is to reach out and touch them.

Q. My husband created a website and hosted it through Yahoo when our daughter was born. We got so busy, we decided to cancel it a year later. The site was shut down in August 2004, and we thought that was that. But the monthly charge for $14.95 keeps appearing on our credit card. Argh! After many calls and letters to customer service and several promises of a full credit, we keep getting billed. WENDY EVANS WAUWATOSA, WIS.

A. What we have here is a failure to communicate. Your enterprising husband had an additional site, which was also hosted by Yahoo and which he had canceled the month before. When you called to complain about the billing for your daughter's site,, Yahoo saw that a site by that name had been shut down and that nothing was being billed anymore. What it didn't see was that you were still being billed for the other website.

The mistake would have been revealed right away if you'd been able to give Yahoo the confirmation number from canceling the first site. (Lesson: Hang on to that stuff.) Somehow, Yahoo customer service didn't uncover the mix-up; it just promised to investigate and never got back to you. For six months. In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

We contacted Yahoo, which straightened things out pronto. The company regrets the confusion and the fact that it took so long to get the matter resolved. Your Visa account has been credited for six months of charges, totaling $89.70.