Why is it that the cell phone contract, free CD club or gym membership is the most ironclad agreement in our society? I honestly think I’d have a better chance of breaking a pact with the devil himself than being able to freely opt out of a cell phone contract.
Satan: “In exchange for unlimited night and weekend minutes and a free phone, I demand eternal possession of your soul!”
Consumer: “Well, actually… those terms are more favorable than Verizon’s plan. Sign me up.”
Unfortunately, Satan would be far more reasonable and compassionate than the typical account representative at a cell phone company. These sadistic people actually enjoy telling customers they are locked into their cellular plan for the next decade. If you call to complain about your bill, they offer you a recitation of the fine print of the cell phone contract. Of course, if we wanted to know the contents of the contract, we would have read it as we were signing it in the first place. As a nation of people constantly seeking “do-overs,” these institutions really strike a nerve by making us abide by the ridiculous provisions we’ve foolishly agreed to. To add insult to injury, these industries seem to flaunt the fact that they’ve screwed us, and there’s nothing we can do about it…
The biggest problem with cell phone plans is the numerous restrictions placed on utilizing the “free” minutes included with your plan. For starters, your call has to take place within a narrow, gerrymandered region called your “Home Calling Area.” Naturally, this region is designed to somehow exclude major cities, roadways, and inhabited areas. Also, for good measure, it will usually be localized entirely within another state.
In cell-phone geography, the world can be divided into two regions: the “Home Calling Area” and the “Roaming Area.” If you are brazen enough to go into the uncharted roaming area, all bets are off… Will you get reception? Possibly. Will you be gouged for any calls you make? Definitely. The area designated as roaming territory is a rugged, savage, untamed land. Picture “Lord of the Flies” with spotty cell phone service. Venturing into the roaming area is a brave endeavor, and if you are lucky enough to make it back to your “Home Calling Area” alive, a staggering cell phone bill will be your only reward.
Of course, the premise of a “Home Calling Area” contradicts the whole purpose of the cell phone in general, which is to give enhanced freedom and flexibility in our active lives. Unless your lifestyle is that of a shut-in, or you happen to be among the bedridden or incarcerated members of our society, most of us would tend to venture outside of the “Home Calling Area” on occasion.
It gets worse. Even if you are fortunate enough to be immobilized within your “Home Calling Area,” don’t plan on placing a call to anyone that isn’t a night watchman or working the graveyard shift at a 7-11. You see, only calls made after 9 pm are included in your “free” minutes. So, essentially, to get any value out of your plan, you need to be nocturnal as well. Seriously, is anyone so frugal that they wait until nightfall to suddenly decide to communicate with the outside world? Do these individuals read by moonlight to save on their electric bill?
Anyway, if you happen to be extremely lethargic, especially during daylight hours, then you might have a sliver of satisfaction with your cellular phone plan. Otherwise, you are like the millions of us that pay handsomely for “free” minutes that are pretty much impossible to ever use. While it is tempting to be the cheapskate that calls people at 2am just because it is a free call, most of us choose to incur ridiculous roaming fees and pay for daytime minutes because we all know what will happen if we try to cancel the plan…
Account Representative (feigning sympathy): “I’m sorry sir, you have not fulfilled your ten-year contract agreement, you will be assessed an early cancellation fee.”
Consumer: “Ok… how much is this fee?”
Account Representative (restraining maniacal laughter): “Your regular bill for the duration of the remainder of your contract!! Bwaa Haa Haa Ha Haaaa!!!”
Not to be outdone, the CD clubs like Columbia House and BMG create their own unique headache. In comparison to the cell phone plan, what the CD club lacks in restrictions, it makes up for in endless hassles. Somehow it all looks so good on paper… “14 CD’s for a penny!!! How can I lose!?!” one thinks at the time. Nobody anticipates that this promotion will essentially ruin their life.
Based on your free CD selections, the staff at BMG will determine that your main musical taste happens to be whatever crap they need to liquidate from their warehouse. For the rest of your life, they will continue to send you movie soundtracks from the 80’s, Slash or Tommy Lee’s latest solo album, or anything featuring Shaq. Of course, you have a few days to return these selections, but unless you maintain Unabomber-like regularity to and from the post office, you’ll likely be stuck with a CD library heavily stocked with artists featured in VH1’s “Where Are They Now?”
Sadly, a CD club can destroy friendships and even tear a family apart. How do they do it? By offering a free CD to members that can convince a friend or loved one to join their CD club. The old saying “misery loves company,” was actually coined as their main marketing slogan. Let’s face it, only a depraved sociopath would sell out their family for a free CD. And simply put, anyone who asks you to join their CD club is not a true friend, as this person has pretty much determined that your friendship is worth about 15 dollars.
New, unwitting CD Club member: “Dude, this CD club you convinced me to sign up for is a total rip-off! It’s ruined my life!”
So-Called Friend (shrugging): “Yeah, it happens…”
New CD Club Member: “If you wanted to end our friendship, why couldn’t you just steal my girlfriend or something…”
Finally, the gym membership really takes it to a whole other level. They not only demand that consumers sign an outrageous contract, but also charge them a fee just to do so. Somehow, the gyms and health clubs convince people to pay a “registration fee” in exchange for being stripped of their consumer rights. This is the equivalent of paying a car-jacker for his services.
Shockingly, these “registration fees” are frequently hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. It’s really more like joining a cult instead of a gym. When you’re ready to join, they both make you sign over all your worldly possessions to their organization. The next thing you know, “24 Hour Fitness” is a joint owner of your bank account. Finally, both are virtually impossible to extricate oneself from. Although, at least if you wanted to leave the cult it would probably only involve a violent shootout with Federal agents.
Finally, there is a common thread to the cell phone plan, gym membership and CD club: Clearly, we really only have ourselves to blame. However, I’m still going to blame lawyers. The question is, who are these lawyers that can even put together such a loophole-free arrangement? If there’s one thing the legal profession has taught me, it’s that virtually any contractual obligation can be destroyed with semantics, legalese and technicalities. The one exception, of course, is the onerous contracts of cell phone companies…
Prison Inmate: “How’d the hearing go?”
Lawyer: “Well, I got the triple-homicide charges reduced to a jaywalking fine, but, unfortunately, you’re still locked into your Verizon contract through 2008. They just wouldn’t budge… I’m sorry.”
Inmate (dejected): “Is there still time to fire up the electric chair?”