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(Beware Telco Tricks)

Clean, orderly, and peaceful elections are what we hope for. Yet, despite the actual conduct and outcome of this democratic exercise, a certain truism sets off the alarm bells in my head: You get the government you deserve.

Doesn’t it seem somewhat odd that we expect our political leaders to be angels when, in the private sphere, we conduct ourselves in a far less than saintly fashion?

A politician will, of course, make all sorts of promises, but so will private companies. Will they deliver on their promises? The results vary. It doesn’t so much matter whether these are government institutions or private companies. Rather, it’s a question of personal and institutional integrity; and whether we, as constituents or customers, hold them to their promises.

Elections are few and far between, but we enter into all sorts of private contracts quite often. What should we watch out for? Telcos, for one, especially since we can no longer escape the Internet and mobile services. There used to be a time when it took years to get a landline phone. Nowadays, thanks to modern technology, you can pick up a landline, cellphone, or Internet service just by walking into a telco office or visiting a booth in a mall or on the sidewalk.

It’s easy to get connected. It’s also easy to get tricked and trapped into bad service. Before you sign up, set aside the marketing hype for a moment and think very carefully.

Read and understand the contract. Your local congressman won’t personally provide you with a written list of promises, but your telephone company will certainly have some form of printed contract. Make sure you understand all the restrictions. The sales person will try to divert your attention by dazzling you with new tech and services, but don’t be rushed or fooled. Insist that everything is clearly explained to you. Ask for a copy of the contract that you can take home, both before and after you sign, so you can study it carefully and consult others. Some telco agents will not immediately give you a copy of your contract. Know your rights.

There will likely be a lock-in period, usually two years or more. If you have the service disconnected or even changed during the lock-in period, the telco will insist on heavy penalties. One reason for a lock-in period is to prevent you from leaving the telco even if the service you signed up for is very bad. The sales people at the counter or booth may not make this clear to you. They will try to gloss over bad news and divert your attention. Don’t get distracted by the sales talk. Keep your focus on the provisions and penalties that the telco can use to threaten you in the future. If these penalty provisions are not made clear to you, they may be void.

Don’t get high on speed. The Internet connection speeds that telco agents brag about are usually the maximum. Depending on the telco’s service in your area, they may or may not be able to deliver. If you read the contract fine print, you will see that the telco is under no obligation to actually provide those promised speeds. Ignore the sales pitch; instead, ask around among folks who are already subscribed to that service.

Check on service and support. Sometimes the telco will have very poor service and technical support from the beginning. Even if the installation goes smoothly, you will certainly need technical support at some point. So make sure to check both phone and over-the-counter support. Find out if phoned-in problems are attended to quickly and correctly. If the telco’s phone support system makes you listen to too much marketing hype, consider that a very bad sign. Ask friends who have dealt with the company if counter personnel make the effort to solve your problem or whether they simply threaten you with penalties if you try to have the service changed or disconnected. Don’t allow telco personnel to scare or bully you.

If things get really bad, WRITE A LETTER. Even if the telco never responds in writing, it’s always good to document your complaint, just in case the telco decides to pester you through legal channels. POST YOUR COMPLAINT ON THE INTERNET, on an e-mail list, or even a short status post on Facebook. You may get some helpful advice and will, at least, make others aware of the telco’s downside.

At this point you might be wondering why you have to go through all this just to get good phone or Internet service. Shouldn’t sales people be fair and explain things properly? No, not really. All is fair in love, war, and sales. At best, they will not tell you an outright lie. Instead, they will gloss over unpleasant facts, misdirect your attention from any tough questions, and brag about features, often spouting technical jargon that even they don’t really understand.

Shouldn’t they be fully honest or at least reasonable? Hardly. Reality check: Sales agents are mainly concerned about their commissions. What happens to you after you sign the contract is not their problem. The office counter personnel and their managers are often not much better. Their overriding concerns are their quotas and careers.

YOU have to do all you can to protect yourself. It may be difficult holding politicians to their promises, but you can always start with your local phone company.

Print ed: 05/10


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