Cell phone customer service: How to get virtually any problem fixed now

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Christopher Elliott

As far as cell phone customer service problems go, Robert Galinak’s was one of the most absurd ones I’ve seen in a while.

It started when he upgraded his Samsung Galaxy S21 to the latest version of Android — a routine procedure.

“After I did, the phone failed to power up,” he says.

He returned the handset to Samsung, which kept it for two months without repairing it. But wait, it gets even worse!

Galinak’s phone customer service problem with Samsung is just the latest in a litany of complaints my consumer advocacy team has received lately. But it is undoubtedly one of the weirdest. Even as it held onto his defective phone, Samsung kept adding mysterious charges to Galinak’s credit card.

That’s right, it kept his phone and charged him more. (What’s he paying, rent?)

Galinak’s case will take us down a rabbit hole of phone customer service problems. I’ll review the most common phone customer service issues in this guide and show you how to get fast service from a wireless company or phone manufacturer.

There’s some good news: The U.S. Federal Trade Commission received 98,063 complaints about phones in 2021, down 16 percent from the year before. And the number of consumer grievances continued to slide in 2022, with only 37,839 complaints in the first half of the year. Hopefully, this guide will help push that number even lower.

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How did this Samsung Galaxy get lost in space?

Galinak’s problem started with a prompt to upgrade his phone to the latest version of his operating system. It seemed like a routine operation — he’d done it numerous times before without a problem.

But this time, there was a problem. The phone went dead after the update.

Galinak contacted Samsung, which gave him two pieces of bad news. First, his Samsung Galaxy wasn’t under warranty. And second, he’d have to return the phone for a repair.

Samsung billed me $161 and promised to return the phone within a week,” he says.

A week passed, but there was no sign of his phone.

“I’ve called Samsung repeatedly to find out what happened to my phone,” he says. “Finally, I said I just wanted my phone back unrepaired.”

No, wait, a representative said — we can fix it. Just give us more time.

So Galinak reluctantly agreed. And that’s when the charges started to pile up. Samsung charged him another $99 for a “Std. Repair Fee” and $130 for an “LCD Assembly Fee.” Samsung has kept his phone for eight weeks.

“I don’t believe I’ll ever see my phone again,” he says. “I want a refund of the $1,000 I spent on the phone or a replacement with the same model. Can you help me?”

What are my rights as a phone customer?

Your rights as a consumer are outlined in a document called a service agreement or customer agreement.

It’s a lengthy document that outlines your rights under the agreement if there’s a dispute. For example, AT&T’s service agreement outlines your rights to go to court or pursue arbitration. It also establishes the company’s right to contact you, charge an early termination fee, or apply credits, among other things.

Review your service agreement carefully before you start the complaint process. You may find that you’ve already signed away most of your rights.

For equipment manufacturers, you will typically agree to a contract that applies to the hardware and software on the device. Samsung’s license agreement, for instance, says you agree not to do anything illegal with its phones. Most of these contracts hardly mention your rights as a consumer but are heavy on obligations.

These agreements are called adhesion contracts because they apply to you but not necessarily to the company. Also, you can’t renegotiate these agreements. So you agree to them by purchasing the product and opening the box. However, it always helps to know what’s in the contract.

What are the most common phone customer service problems?

There are several general categories of consumer complaints when it comes to phones. These apply to phone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung and wireless service providers like AT&T and T-Mobile.

Bill shock

That’s an unexpected and often unwarranted increase in your bill without any meaningful change in your service. Bill shocks are random and appear to be the result of a software glitch, but there’s usually an explanation. You can get bill shocked by your service provider or manufacturer.

Bill shock is a favorite way for phone companies to make a quick buck. They do it by inventing new fees and then tacking them on to your account when you’re not looking. Here’s a reader whose wireless bill doubled for dubious reasons.

The key to fixing bill shock quickly is to monitor your monthly invoice. Don’t just set it to autopay and forget. I’ve outlined the principles for a resolution in this story — keep a paper trail, be patient, persistent and polite. But above all, don’t let them get away with it.

False advertisements

Carriers sometimes misrepresent their services or special offers. For example, you might get an unlimited wireless offer with an asterisk that says it will throttle you after a certain amount of data. That’s not unlimited wireless. Customers say manufacturers also advertise false or misleading prices.

We often run into overcharge complaints on international plans on this site. For example, here’s one reader who paid an extra $100 for her wireless plan. Inevitably, the problem goes back to a vaguely worded ad that makes customers believe they have a deal when, in fact, they don’t.

Careful documentation of the problem can help prevent it. But ultimately, after appealing to an executive or an outside party, you may have to dispute your charges on your credit card. Here’s a guide that will help you do that.

Repair and warranty problems

This issue primarily involves manufacturers. But since contracts can sometimes outlast a defective device, many wireless providers get dragged into a warranty problem.

Our team has received an inordinate number of refund questions. Here’s one Samsung customer who was promised a refund but never received it, even after we got involved in the case. These types of cases require a complete paper trail from beginning to end. If a representative offers you a refund by phone, it’s not enough (unless you’re recording the call where legal).

Make sure you get the promise — whatever it is — in writing. If the company doesn’t come through in a timely manner, communicate your repair or warranty problem to an executive. Then, start going down the list of third parties to contact for help.

Slamming

Slamming is switching your phone service without your permission. Phone companies also “cram” their bills with surprise surcharges. Slamming and cramming are the evil twins of the phone industry, and a frequent subject of consumer complaints to our organization.

Our readers have experienced plenty of surprise surcharges, including unwarranted fees when they’ve tried to return defective products. Usually, public pressure by a consumer can lead to the removal of these fees.

But the fees are also illegal in many cases, and contacting your state or federal regulator (scroll down for more information) can help.

Who do I contact about a phone customer service problem?

Contact your phone company immediately if you experience any of these problems. Start with the manufacturer or the wireless provider. I list the executive contacts on this site.

If that doesn’t fix the issue, try one of the following:

Get in touch with state regulators

Each state has a consumer protection office that can help with a phone company grievance. For service complaints, reach out to your state utility commission.

Contact the Feds

If you’ve been slammed or crammed or are a victim of a misleading ad, contact the Federal Trade Commission. The agency handles complaints about wireless contracts and bills, but not phone equipment. You can also contact the Federal Communications Commission about billing and equipment problems.

Ask a consumer advocate

Contact a local advocate for a TV station, newspaper or reach out directly to our advocacy team. We’re always happy to help.

How to reach the customer service department at your phone company

AT&T cell phone customer service

AT&T, like other wireless carriers, seems to prefer conducting all of its customer service support by phone. This makes it exceptionally difficult to generate a paper trail that’s sometimes necessary for a resolution.

Here are the AT&T executive contacts. AT&T’s executives are difficult to reach, and the company creates strange email naming conventions, presumably to keep customers from reaching an executive — or creating a paper trail.

T-Mobile customer service

Our advocacy team receives relatively few complaints about T-Mobile customer service. The company has also cooperated with our research team, which is a sign that the company cares about customer service. Here are the T-Mobile executive contacts.

Verizon customer service

Verizon’s customer service has been pretty decent lately. Executives listed on our Verizon company contact page are typically quick to respond. We’ve received many reports of Verizon fixing customer service issues quickly and to their customers’ satisfaction.

Apple customer service

Apple’s customer support is legendary. If you have a problem with an iPhone or iPad and it gets to the level where you have to contact an Apple executive, it probably is worth a story on this site. Do me a favor and let me know.

Samsung phone customer service

Samsung’s phone customer service is usually decent, but sometimes not. (Just ask Galinak.) We have a fair number of complaints about Samsung, which is why the Samsung customer service executives were among the first we posted when we created this database.

Can Samsung revive a dead phone?

Samsung should have fixed Galinak’s phone quickly, as promised. Keeping his Galaxy S21 for eight weeks and charging his credit card repeatedly without delivering a repaired phone is outrageous.

A software update should not disable a phone, leading to expensive repairs. But a closer look at Galinak’s paper trail shows that Samsung wanted to do more than fix the software problem.

The LCD Assembly Fee means it is trying to replace a cracked screen. Maybe his phone wasn’t in the best shape before he tried to upgrade it.

It looks as if Galinak’s Samsung Galaxy S21 repair malfunctioned on several levels. Samsung didn’t keep him posted on the status of his phone. It didn’t tell him what was wrong with the device. And then the company charged him nearly $400 without delivering a phone.

He could have reached out to one of the Samsung executive contacts I publish on this site. (If you’re not sure how to approach the company, don’t worry — I also have a free guide on how to fix your consumer problem.)

Galinak handled this one by the book. He kept copies of his chat with Samsung, as well as detailed phone records. And after waiting a reasonable amount of time, he asked for his phone back so he could get it repaired somewhere else. That would have almost certainly cost him less.

It’s unclear why Samsung kept his phone for as long as it did. If the software update caused a problem, that should be a relatively easy repair.

I contacted Samsung on Galinak’s behalf. The company sent his Galaxy S21 back with the promised repairs but kept his money.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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