Phone service

The Census Bureau says the average U.S. household paid $92 per month for phone service in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available. That was up from $76 in 2001 (an increase sharper than the overall rate of inflation). Most of the 2007 total -- $50.67, on average -- was for cell service.

Chances are that your phone bills, especially for your cell, are larded with government fees and taxes. As I wrote in "Governments getting more fee-happy," cell service is a prime target for revenue-hungry agencies -- so much so that government-mandated taxes and fees now constitute an average 16.3% of your bill, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

But there are plenty of other pesky fees on your phone bills that you may be able to do something about. Such as:

"Cramming" fees. The head of the Federal Communications Commission says cramming is epidemic, with up to 20 million households facing unauthorized charges on their phone bills for services they didn't order. The fees can be one-time charges or monthly subscriptions, ostensibly placed on your bill by "aggregators" on behalf of "third-party providers." The three layers involved -- the third-party provider, the aggregator and the phone company -- often result in a lot of finger pointing when the fees are questioned.

The fees could be for voice mail, Web hosting, donations, long-distance service and various types of subscriptions (for ringtones or daily horoscopes, for example). The fees could show up on your bill under a variety of labels, such as "service fee," "service charge," "other fees," "voicemail," "mail server," "calling plan," "membership," "monthly fee" or "minimum monthly usage fee."

Crammers typically get away with it because most people don't monitor their bills and the amounts are often small, often $1.99 to $2.99. But not always.

Columnist Donna Freedman discovered, to her horror, that she'd been paying $19.99 a month for ringtones she'd never ordered. As she put it, "I wouldn't know how to download a ringtone if it meant the firing squad."

Your strategy: Scan your phone bills at least every few months. If you find a questionable charge, ask your phone company for an explanation. If it's for a service you didn't authorize, immediately ask the company to remove the charge.

If the charge was initiated by a third party, ask that company to remove the charge. But if that doesn't work, appeal to your phone service provider.

If all else fails, file a complaint with the FCC for charges related to telephone services between states or internationally, with your state public-service commission for telephone services within your state, and with the Federal Trade Commission for non-telephone services on your telephone bill.

To file a complaint with the FCC, click here or call 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) or, for TTY, 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322). You can also write to the Federal Communications Commission, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, 445 12th St. S.W., Washington, D.C., 20554.

Roaming charges. We've gotten so used to national calling plans that roaming charges may come as a shock. Step foot out of the country, and you can get walloped.

"I was just charged over $46 in roaming fees for the week I was in Jamaica," one of my Facebook fans wrote. "I had my phone on for maybe five minutes the entire time to see if it would work (which it did not, so I turned it off). Sprint credited my account."

You'll really be sorry if you have a smartphone and fail to turn off its data functions. Your phone can still be downloading emails and Facebook updates, racking up stupendous bills, since without an international data plan you'll pay by the megabyte.

You don't have to leave the U.S. to get creamed, however. You can get hit with roaming charges if you wander into an area where your provider doesn't have cell towers.

Your strategy: Set your phone to "network only" to prevent inadvertent roaming. (Ask your provider how to do it, or simply type your phone's name and "turn off roaming" into a search engine to find instructions.) If you plan to use your phone outside the country, ask your provider to set you up with the appropriate international plan. You can cancel the plan when you get home. If you have a smartphone, turn off data roaming or get an international data plan along with your phone plan, since otherwise you'll pay dearly for every email you download and every website you visit.

Early-termination fees. These much-hated fees have gotten worse in recent years as carriers have jacked up the penalties for canceling service if you have an "advanced device" such as a smartphone or tablet.

AT&T's regular $150 termination fee soars to $325 if your deal included a smartphone or tablet. Verizon boosted its $175 early-termination fee to $350 for advanced devices.

The fees are typically prorated, so they decline the further into your contract you get. At AT&T and Verizon, the fee drops by a few bucks a month. At T-Mobile and Sprint, the $200 termination fee declines in chunks over time until it hits $50 in the final months of your contract. You can check providers' websites or call and ask how much of a fee you would face for canceling service.

Your strategy: You typically have 14 to 30 days to get out of your contract without an early-termination fee. So make sure you can put the phone through its paces in the first few weeks to see if you have decent coverage where you need it, MSNBC's Sullivan advised.

You also may be able to avoid an early-termination fee by paying full price, instead of the promotional price, for your handset. Or consider prepaid phones, which don't have contracts.

Rather than pay an early-termination fee, see if you can find someone to take over your contract. A friend or neighbor who needs service might be willing, or you can list your contract for "sale" on Celltradeusa.com for a $19.99 registration fee.

You also can try talking your way out of a fee, but you'll need to be determined and have good reasons why you should be let out of your contract -- reasons that are the carrier's fault, such as spotty coverage, dropped calls or bad customer service.

Data usage fees. "All you can eat" data plans for smartphones are being replaced by tiered service. AT&T was the first to eliminate unlimited data plans in favor of tiers: 200 megabytes of data for $15 a month, two gigabytes for $25 or four gigabytes for $45. Verizon Wireless just switched from a $30 unlimited data plan to tiers that cost $30 for two gigabytes, $50 for five gigabytes and $80 for 10 gigabytes. Users with Internet-compatible phones can pay $10 for 75 megabytes per month. T-Mobile's plan charges $10 for 200 MB per month, $20 for two gigabytes, $30 for five gigabytes and $60 for 10 gigabytes. Sprint is the last major carrier to offer unlimited data plans, although that could change.

The clear danger is that you'll exceed your tier's data usage cap and rack up unexpected fees. At AT&T, that will cost you $15 for each 200 megabytes (or part thereof) that you consume. Verizon charges $10 to $100 per extra gigabyte, depending on the device used.

Your strategy: Obviously, you should match your plan to your expected use. This data calculator at T-Mobile can help. You also should set up text or email alerts with the provider so you're notified when you're closing in on your data limit. Streaming videos and music will chomp up data, so consider using a Wi-Fi connection instead. Turn off apps that you're not using, particularly social apps that constantly update, and shut down your browser when you're not actively using it.

Random "gotcha" fees. Activation fees are classic junk fees that can often be waived if you simply ask. The same is true for "new handset" fees, which typically run $18 to $35 and are imposed when you get a new phone. Neither of these fees is remotely necessary and carriers know it, so they'll often delete them if you push back. Another fee to avoid: directory assistance at $2 a pop. Program your phone to call Bing 411 (1-800-246-4411) or 1-800-free-411 (1-800-373-3411) instead. (Bing 411 is owned by Microsoft, the publisher of MSN Money.)

Finally, watch out for "premium texts." These are texts that trigger subscription services (jokes, horoscopes, ringtones) or that are charged higher rates, such as interactive voting during TV shows. If you want to avoid these gotchas, ask your carrier if you can disable premium texting.