May 2, 2005 12:34 PM PDT

Teens dialing up ring tone trouble

Wireless operators are fighting a growing backlash from parents angry at the exorbitant ring tone bills their children are racking up.

At work is a teenager's penchant for reckless spending, helped along by advertising from ring tone providers, which some critics label as unclear, others as deceptive.

Some of the friction began six months ago, when at least one ring tone vendor, Jamster, began selling ring tones in bulk, in exchange for a weekly or monthly fee, in addition to offering a single tone at a time. Some consumers didn't notice the changes, and thought they were buying a single tone when they were really buying a week's or month's worth. Jamster, however, says its pricing is clear.
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Still, a crackdown of sorts has begun. A handful of North American and European operators are now at work on a code of conduct for ring tone sellers, due for release in 30 days, according to Paul Palmieri, executive director of business development and programming for Verizon Wireless.

Some operators aren't waiting. Cingular Wireless, the top U.S. operator, increased on Monday the number of approvals ring tone sellers must get from customers before finalizing any sale.

"Operators have been caught off guard by activities of several companies selling ring tones," said Verizon's Palmieri. "We're now trying to arrive at a code around price transparency and clear disclosure around things like subscriptions."

The issue is the subject of a lawsuit filed by California parents earlier this year against Cingular Wireless, T-Mobile USA and Jamster, which is a subsidiary of security specialist VeriSign. The suit alleges the defendants did not clearly state that people were signing up for Jamster's $6-a-month service.

By contrast, a single ring tone costs $1.99, according to Jamster's Web site.

Jamster, marketed in Europe under the brand name Jamba, plays to a teenage audience and advertises on MTV, Nickelodeon and Web sites popular with teens.

A Jamster representative called the suit "frivolous" and rigorously defended the company's advertising and sales tactics.

"We believe we clearly state that you are entering into a monthly plan, and many of the alleged facts in the lawsuit are erroneous," said Jamster spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy.

A Cingular representative had no comment on the suit. T-Mobile also had no comment.

The overall impact of consumer confusion is unclear. Palmieri, Cingular spokesman Clay Owen, and Albert Lin, an analyst for American Technology Research who earlier this week released a report on ring tones and pricing, couldn't quantify the number of people that purchased a monthly ring tone subscription believing they were buying just a single tone. Lin called it a "significant" amount.

Owen said Cingular has taken dozens of complaints about huge ring tone bills. Many are from parents noticing the charges on their child's cell phone bills, which they pay for, Owen said. The bills sometimes suggest teens are overzealously spending on tones, as some young people do on phone calls and short text messages. Some parents contacted by CNET on Monday say that typically their child's cell phone bills feature mysterious charges of up to $10 a month for ring tones.

Lin notes that the problem has been severe enough for carriers to take action, mostly because it's reflecting negatively on them, deservedly or not.

"Carriers don't want unhappy customers feeling they were slammed into buying something they didn't want," Lin wrote in his report. "The scrutiny that is being applied to sales practices which may create such episodes is intensifying."

The hullabaloo spotlights flaws in the important partnership between carriers and independent cell phone software vendors, which the carriers are counting on for the next killer application and margin-boosting business model. When things go awry, consumers can be adversely affected and operators taken by surprise.

Independent ring tone vendors do most of the work of creating the tones: They sign the artists, produce the tones and distribute them directly to customers. The ring tone vendors also keep a large share of the revenues, with wireless operators keeping a small piece for giving the companies access to their subscribers and for handling the billing.

Now, according to Lin, there are growing signs of an operator crackdown, not just in regard to ring tones but also in regard to the games, wallpaper and other add-ons operators sell.

"While we see a healthy growth industry remaining after this examination, we believe that segment of the industry will experience a slowdown which may feel like a train wreck compared with the recent months of hypergrowth," Lin wrote in his report.


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How convenient for the carrier
This issue has given them an excuse to shut out the 3rd party ringtone providers so they are the only provider you can use.

Thankfully it's not true, thanks to cables that can be had for under $10 on eBay and software that is frequently free you can create and upload unlimited ringtones to your phone without paying your carrier a penny.

All of my ringtones (and I have more than a few for different callers) are simply trimmed and low bitrate clips of MP3s ripped from my CD collection. Nor do I pay to get camera phone images out of the phone.

I'm not going to name products specifically because I don't want to seem like a shill, but if you search around you can find the solution to overpriced ringtones.
Posted by raitchison (103 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Teens dialing up ring tone trouble
I agree with earlier posts that ring tone advertisements are somewhat deceptive. However, as far as the wireless carriers, they are in the business to make a profit. With the U.S. population becoming saturted, wireless carriers need an alternative to increase revenue.

I don't really see what the big deal is about the ring tones. I use the standard rings that come with the phone.
Posted by sdot07 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Who didn't see this coming??
I mean, the first time I saw the small print in a Jamster ad I knew they were preying on kids, and that eventually lawsuits would fly and the telcos would react like they had no idea this was going on (even though you can bet they get a kickback for allowing Jamster access to their users).

It's the 900-number boom of the early 90s all over again.
Posted by M C (598 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly my thoughts
If you couldn't see this one coming a mile (or in this case, about 2 months) away, you don't watch tv (or have a tivo and skip through all the ads).

I just noticed Ivan Yagolnikov posted a comment about setting phones to vibrate, and used "Easy Solution" as his subject title. I agree our phones should be on vibrate, as I use mine, but that doesn't mean other people don't have reasons to use ring tones, and this wouldn't be an easy solution for parents at all that I can see.

While trying to conclude my statment I have nothing to say other than I completely agree with you. Who didn't see this coming?
Posted by routine_error (3 comments )
Link Flag
Prepaid services for kids!
I agree that this is possibly a ploy by carriers to further allow them to restrict who gains access to their networks, but I think the real issue here is that adults should quit giving their children postpaid services, where children can run up a bill.

The solution for kids (and teens) (and seniors) and anyone else who wants a simple mobile phone without hassle and bills - is PREPAID!
Virgin Mobile USA or T-Mobile To Go if you want lots of minutes cheaply.

TracFone if you need a large roaming coverage area and don't mind paying a bit more.

Verizon INpulse and Cingular if you want unlimited mobile to mobile calls included.
Posted by jegrant (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ringtone Ripoffs
I would expect better from VeriSign's subsidiary Jamster, I don't think I will be renewing my annual Security ID from VeriSign again. I will have to go with someone else. We have enough scams to deal with, in our society without adding more onto the pile.

My Son's (age 23) girlfriend thought she would surprise him with a ringtone from a favorite song, only to notice later that it was a weekly charge, and was difficult to get out of, these tricksters should be ashamed at the target audience of these scam artists. I have since made him a few dozen he can upload into his phone for free (from personal music files).

W Lennon
Posted by wlennon (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Jamester sucks anyway
I frequently see its TV ads on G4TV, and the "old" ad was very misleading because it used bold fonts to tell viewers to dial some numbers to get FREE RINGTONES, but put those "monthly fees and charges" in tiny font. Now? I still see its ads, but the phrase "FREE RINGTONES" are gone :)
Posted by 201293546946733175101343322673 (722 comments )
Reply Link Flag
nothing in life is free
why is common sense so un-common these days, i work for a bank and you are the same dumb-***** calling in every day because they dont understand the terms they agreed to, hopefully natural selection will kick in and all these dumb people who are slowing down the development of the human race will just die out!!!!
Posted by altered_intentionz (3 comments )
Link Flag
Ring tone (AKA $$ from heaven)
It's about time somebody took these carriers to task. It has really irritated me the way they
the carriers (I hold Verizon and the others responsible) have allow this service to bilk parents. In one month I had over $40 in charges for ringtones. This included two subscriptions (a premium and a basic) running concurrently. If you were to price a CD based on the ringtone pricing model, that CD would cost you near $60. Bought a $60 CD lately? Verizon and the other should be ashamed of putting the screws to parents.
Posted by trudancor (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Novelty will wear off real soon
I mean how much interest can remain with a lame ring tone? It's got to be one of the stupidest ways to blow money. It's like the pet rock.
Posted by bobby_brady (765 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I completely agree
I lost interest in interesting ring tones when I had my Nokia 2110e. Ever since I have chosen the most phone like ring that my mobile has.
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
Link Flag
Note to Parents
They are your kids, act like adults and control them.
Posted by jmmejzz (107 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No kidding
Give a teenager a device with which they can rack up charges, and anyone is surprised they are racking up charges?
Teenagers need a cell phone like a fish needs a bicycle. All they do is use them like expensive walkie-talkies. As another post noted, remember the $1,000+ charges that kids were getting for 900 numbers in the 80's and 90's? That is, until parents got fed up and began monitoring their children.
Posted by sdencar (28 comments )
Link Flag
And another thing
Is it legal for children to accrue monthly charges? Wouldn't that be construed as a contract? Can minors enter into contracts?
Posted by sdencar (28 comments )
Link Flag
Easy solution
I agree with earlier posters -- Jamster's ads are somewhat deceptive (never mention subscription payments in the speaking portion). I figured they'd get in a jam (pun intended) as I saw the number of their ads skyrocket recently.

Still, I don't understand what's the big deal about ringtones? People should get some sense and just keep their phones on vibrate! I attend a large university and it bugs me to no end when people forget to turn their phones off and some cheesy tune plays (even during exams). Keeping phone on vibrate or silent (for movies) should be a common courtesy that we too often forgo...
Posted by Rusdude (170 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Fire Molly Wood
Fire Molly Wood
Posted by montgomeryburns (109 comments )
Reply Link Flag
there's an easier way to avoid this problem...
take your kid's cell phone, and pitch it in the trash where it belongs. adults who don't use an ounce of common sense with their cell phones are annoying enough. kids are even worse, and they just plain don't need them. i understand frustration with cell phone companies and the leeches like jamster that feed on them, but this is primarily another example of just how pathetic the state of parenting has gotten. i'm 'only' 30, and the differences between now and when i was a teen are simply mind-boggling. to echo another comment, come on, people, act like adults and treat your children like children. be a parent, not a buddy. we'll all be better off in the long run.
Posted by JakeG (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Cell phone not a luxury for some
While I agree with parts of your statement (that having to do with parenting), the cell phone is indispensible in my family. Both of my children attend diffent schools and they have different schedules (games, rehearsals etc..) so they do not take the school bus home. There are NO payphones at the schools -were taken out a year or 2 ago- and there are no buses or train for them to take home. My wife and I juggle our schedules to see who is closer to whom (kids), and at what time, so we can picked them up. As much as I hate those ring tone bills, it's irrelevant when compared to the safety of my kids.
Posted by trudancor (14 comments )
Link Flag
wow are parents that stupid?
i guess so, when i was a kid, not that long ago btw, when i did something stupid my parents just punished me how freaking stupid is it for the parents to sue the company, take the damn cell phone away you stupid parents, christ if they aren't responsable dont give them a phone, which they probably shouldn't have anyways. from the very begining i knew that jamster was going to be involved and i have read their comercials about a million times. Its clear as day that they are going to charge you a weekly or monthly fee. im glad my parents aren't as stupid as the ones that this article is talking about.
Posted by altered_intentionz (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
But your grammar is horrible
Your parents should have insisted on a better english grade.

Just messin' with ya. You're point is dead on.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Link Flag
Cingular Detail
The biggest problem I have found is that when children do download items onto their phones it's impossible to determine what it was they downloaded, Calls to Cingular not withstanding. These charges show up on the bill on a single line with no explaination.
Posted by Stormspace (1028 comments )
Reply Link Flag
My kids don't do that because ...
... I'd take their phone away.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Blame the parents AND the carriers
I agree with everyone that the parents should be shouldering the majority of the blame for not controlling their kids. It irks me to no end how quickly these parents attempt to shift responsibility away from their own bad parenting (just watch Nanny 911 :))

But, the carriers should be shouldering immense blame for not providing parental control capabilities akin to AOL, cable television, and other services. Parents should be able to ask the carrier to BLOCK any purchase of any type that would appear on the phone bill beyond basic service. Parents should also be able to prevent their kids from continuing to use their phone if they go over the allotted minutes per month. And, if the kid abuses text messaging, parents should be able to disable that feature as well. Cell phones are a great tool for parents to keep up with their kids and give them a lifeline if they are ever in trouble or in an emergency. But, that tool should be controllable by those parents.

I've looked at Jamster's ads and I don't see anything that can be misinterpreted the way these people claim it was misinterpreted. They are just trying to shuffle blame to the technology that's the newest (funny how we tend to do that in general :)). The carriers are totally trying to shirk blame away from providing the parental control features they need to and CAN provide. If they can provide freakin' full motion video on a cell phone, they can provide the controls to block functionality like this that is ripe for abuse and their kids don't really need.
Posted by (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What are they gonna do when... rack up hundreds of dollars worth of songs once the
carriers start offering online music for their cell phones for
$2.99 per track? I can't wait to see that flop. I'm quite content
with my Sony MP3 player, thank you.

Cell phones are such rip offs anyway. Peoples' justification? "I
need it for emergency purposes." Yeah, right. You need it to call
911 for running into the back of an innocent driver while you
were running your mouth on the cell phone.
Posted by JadisOne (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just like the McDonald's Suit from Parents
This reminds me of the McDonald's suit from parents because their kids were getting fat from eating fast food. That was in November 2002 and I believe it was thrown out. Hopefully, this lawsuit will be thrown out too.

Parents are responsible for their kids and they need to lock-down the cell phone usage. No different than kids accessing the Internet or going out with their friends to 4AM ... parents need to do their job as parents.

Posted by treet007 (123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ringtone trouble
I work in the cellphone industry. In one of the call centers. What are we doing to correct the situation in hand. First off our management has directed us to help our customers. This is to include getting refunds for our customers. I have personally spent over an hour refunding 80.00 plus in charge from these companies. This has to be done one charge at a time. Secondly no one reads the fine print. To totally unsubscribe from these parasites you either have to call or send a text messege to these companies. We cannot unsubscribe you from them. What we can do (at least Cingular can) We can block both internet and text messeges (no charge). You will still need to send the messege to unsubscribe. Thirdly if your child has done this. Extra chores(if no job) or as I tell my customer parttime jobs are good for saving for college and paying extra cellphone charges. Lastly if your kid doesn't follow rules. A temporary service suspension of the line can help. Also, don't try the old wheeze, "My child doesn't know how!" Maybe you didn't show em. But, I will wager their friends were more than willing to show'em. As to Suing the companies. Jamster is in lawsuit as of May 5, 2005. Will it do any good. No. Why. They are based out of this country. Lose the suit fold up and come back under a different name same scam. Last word. Parents do you really know what your kids are up to? Maybe it is time you should.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
Read the fine line
Parents, you should be telling your kids that they should be reading the fine print because just because a commercial says something is free, it doesn't mean that it is totally free--beides there is no such thing as a free lunch, you have to qualify for it first, and then apply.
Posted by james.grimes (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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