People with family and friends overseas spend more than two billion dollars a year on prepaid phone cards. But a Consumer Reports investigation finds it's buyer beware.
Mary Meza uses phone cards to call her family in the Dominican Republic. But she complains she doesn't always get as much calling time as she expects.
Meza says, "I get really angry because I think it's not fair."
Consumer Reports analyzed more than 130 prepaid phone cards. Most cost just two to five dollars.
They look like bargains, but Consumer Reports found lots of problems.
"Three quarters of the cards we looked at didn't tell you how much it cost to make a call. You usually never found out until you were on the phone."
And Consumer Reports found the amount of calling time varies tremendously. For example, these cards both cost two dollars, but this one gave us 200 minutes to call Mexico City. This one, only five minutes.
And there can be lots of fees, which may be listed on the back in tiny type. Those prepaid phone card fees can include a fee for connecting or disconnecting or calling on a cell phone or calling from a pay phone.
There can be a daily maintenance fee.
"The fees can really eat into the value of the cards. These were completely drained before we ever made our international call," said Consumer Reports Bob Tiernan.
In some cases, Consumer Reports was able to get the fees reversed, but only after calling customer service.
Tiernan says, "If you frequently make calls overseas, there are better alternatives."
You can use Skype on your computer or smart phone to call overseas for modest rates, which are clearly spelled out on Skype's website.
Consumer Reports says another option for people who regularly call overseas-use an international calling plan through your cell-phone or landline provider.
For a small, montly fee, you can get calls for pennies per minute. And unlike many prepaid phone cards, the charges are clearly spelled out.