Is your phone card phony? 5 ways you can tell

phoneWhen is an hour just 36 minutes? When you buy some phone cards, apparently. That’s the conclusion of a recent Federal Trade Commission investigation, which found certain pre-paid calling cards offered an average of just 40 percent of call minutes customers thought they were buying — and some, significantly less.

You should care about this if you travel outside your wireless company’s regular calling area, because that’s when you’re likely to buy one of these cards. If you don’t read the fine print on the agreement, you could end up getting shorted by close to a half hour of talk time, according to the FTC.

Here’s how the government discovered this particular ruse: Back in 2011, investigators tipped off by angry callers decided to buy sample cards from a company called DR Phone Communications. Of the 169 cards tested, all failed to deliver the number of minutes prominently advertised on their point-of-sale posters, according to the FTC.

In all, the cards were said to deliver on average only 40 percent of the minutes promised, with 52 cards delivering less than 25 percent of the minutes advertised, and 25 cards delivering less than five percent of the minutes advertised.

What was eating up all the minutes? Fees and expirations, which steadily nibbled away at customers’ ability to use the cards as advertised. DR Phone Communications settled with the FTC this spring, agreeing to pay a fine and abide by strict new disclosure requirements.

You don’t have to be a phone card victim. Here are a few ways you can ensure the phone card you’re buying for your next overseas trip is legit. As a refresher, a pre-paid card lets you pay in advance for phone minutes. The rate charged per minute determines the amount of calling time you’re buying.

Is it a known brand? Established brands are far less likely to pull a fast one than a fly-by-night operation, as a general rule. So, for example, a Sprint prepaid phone card will probably offer more reasonable terms than a “Cheep Callz” card you find at the corner grocery store, whether you’re in the United States or overseas. Look for a brand you know.

How many calls do you get to make? Some cards lose a lot of value if you try to make more than one call, regardless of the number of minutes advertised, according to the FTC. Be sure you can make multiple calls with the same card.

How do you access the card? Sometimes, advertised minutes apply only if you use a local “access” phone number. Want to dial a toll-free number? You might burn through your minutes significantly faster.

See any funny fees? Among the worst are “hang up” fees, deducted each time you hang up the phone, and “maintenance” fees, billed shortly after you use the card and at regular intervals. Also, look for pay phone “surcharges” when you use a public phone. I detail some of these in this recent story.

How about wireless calls? If you’re calling a cell phone, rates can be significantly higher — even higher than calling overseas. Make sure you’re not spending all your money on a single cell phone call. You might.

Practices like this ought to be illegal, but as a practical matter, they’re difficult to stamp out. It’s even harder to get your money back when you’ve purchased a phone card that cuts you off.

Of course, you could short-circuit this whole unpleasantness by renting a cell phone or getting a SIM card on your next trip.

Have you ever been scammed by a phone card?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    One Word. Skype

  • sweepergrl

    “Of course, you could short-circuit this whole unpleasantness by renting a cell phone or getting a SIM card on your next trip”
    There are plenty of places in the US that don’t have cell coverage at all, or so inconsistently that it’s nearly worthless. I carry a phone card when I visit these places (vacation in the mountains, visiting the family farm in the upper Midwest, driving on I-80/ I-35 through the Midwest) because using a cell just isn’t an option. This way I don’t run up the family’s phone bill or worse, a hotel phone bill. So yes, phone cards usually suck, but you can’t assume that cell phones are an automatic fix.

  • Christopher Elliott

    That’s a good point, and I should have made that clearer in the story. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in on this issue.

  • John Baker

    I voted “no” simply because I haven’t had a calling card since college when cell phones didn’t exist (yes I’m dating myself)

    Also …
    “Of course, you could short-circuit this whole unpleasantness by renting a cell phone or getting a SIM card on your next trip.”

    One caution on renting a cell phone… Some of the rental companies not only charge you a large fee for the rental, their per minute rates aren’t any better than the international roaming rates from your wireless carrier. Just do your homework first..

  • EdB

    Was just going to say the same thing. If cell coverage is spotty or non-existence, but you have access to WiFi, VoIP is a very good alternative.

  • EdB

    I remember reading about phone cards some time ago and how this “scam” works. Basically, you are buying “units”, not “minutes”. However, each unit is equal to one minute of talk time. So for example, if you buy a card advertised as “100 minutes”, you would be getting a card with say 120 units. What they don’t advertise is that each call cost 20 units to make and then 1 unit per minute after. So that 100 minute card you bought is only good for 100 minutes if you make only one call. If you make 4 calls with the card, that is 80 units in connection costs leaving 40 units for talk time, meaning you only get 40 minutes for the advertised 100 minutes (only 40% of the advertised talk time).

  • BobChi

    As one who grew up in the days when international calling was really expensive and complicated, I recall going weeks without phone contact back to the U.S. With that background, even when, despite the modern technology available now, there are times when I might be cut off from phone contact for a day or two, I don’t bother with phone cards. The understanding is that this can happen, and I’ll call again when I can. I guess the younger generation feels the world would come to an end if they were outside the loop for 48 hours. Good discussion of the ripoffs.

  • Gary Moll

    I used to use phone cards from home to send faxs. I did not have a long distance carrier, and my cell phone does not have faxing capabilities, and to avoid long-distance charges, the fax machine could call a local number and complete the fax over the phone line using a local access number.
    Also, when I deployed with the Air Force to an overseas location, the military would have trunk lines that could get you a US dial tone, but it was up to the individual to complete the rest of the call. It was great if you wanted to call Oklahoma City or Charleston SC, but my family was elsewhere.
    I bought a 10-pack of AT&T phone cards. Of course that would last me a while, but I started to have a problem with them. Then I found out the ugly truth: they expire! AT&T phone cards expire if not used promptly!
    Have you ever tried to address this issue with AT&T? Good luck finding an individual or office that can help you. It soured me on AT&T because there is absolutely no customer service when you need to discuss phone card expiration.

  • emanon256

    I voted yes. I am shocked that these scams are still around. I fell for them in the 90s when I started traveling internationally. I always hated the connection fees. I remember getting a card that had 60 minutes, only to have them charge the equivalent of 10 minutes to connect, 20 additional minutes because it was to the US, and then when I went to place a second call, the connection fees were more than the remaining balance, so it deducted them all and wouldn’t let me call. I got about 5 minutes of actual talk time. Though on the first call, I could have spoken for up to 30 minutes I suppose. They really need to disclose this up front, or simply stop this crazy practice. I did learn that many cards did disclose the fees, and most of them had similar fees, so I stopped using them.

    Now a days I never have this problem. I can find free or low cost WiFi almost everywhere and typically communicate through e-mail. In the event I need to make a call, I can use Skype when I find free WiFi. I also occasionally make the roaming call, but only when absolutely necessary. I recently found my cell phone provider will let me add international coverage on a specific date, and then remove it on a specific date and they pro-rate the fee. So when I am traveling, I add the service and then remove it, just in case I need it. It actually ends up being only a few dollars for the service, and with the service the rate goes down to under a dollar a minute. I just never add data because no matter what, it is never cheap. In the past I really liked buying pre-paid SIMs but my carrier won’t unlock my phone anymore.

  • emanon256

    Ive never rented a cell phone, but I’ve found SIM rentals to be very good, but sadly I now have a locked phone. Back in the day, my carrier would un-lock my phone when I travel. But its been many years since they have been willing to do that.

    Edit: I mean pre-paid SIMs. I’m not sure if they have SIM rentals.

  • emanon256

    I had the same problem with Sprint phone cards. They deducted a large chunk of minuets each moth. They also had connection fees which shocked me. And customer service was no where to be found. I was only using the sprint ones intra-US as I didn’t have long distance either.

  • MeanMeosh

    I would also add that getting a SIM card in a foreign country isn’t as easy as you might think it is. In several countries, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for someone without a verifiable local address to obtain a SIM card for a cell phone. India is one example – I lived there for 2+ years, with a real address and everything, and you wouldn’t believe the hoops I had to jump through to get a cell phone. This involved several sets of passport photos, a letter from my employer verifying both my employment and residential address, and a personal visit from a phone company representative to my apartment to verify that we really lived there. My wife’s phone ended up being blocked for nearly 2 weeks because the rep showed up when we weren’t home, and it took that long to untangle the mess. All this for a prepaid account.

    Just make sure to do your homework before assuming you can rent a SIM card or a phone wherever you’re going. You might well be better off asking your provider to turn on international roaming before you leave, or better yet, staying in a place that offers WiFi and using Skype or Vonage.

  • Gary Moll

    In addition to the one word: “Skype”, add this word: “Viber”. An app for smartphones that allows calling anywhere in the world where the other party also has Viber. Uses 3G or WiFi. I got an excellent call from a shopping mall in Prague via Viber – almost better than my regular cell provider.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    The worst ripoff I encountered with a phone card was with IDT at a German airport. I had to call my wife to let her know my flight had been delayed and I didn’t have a cell phone. So I paid 5 Euros for a card and got about 5 minutes out of it. I guess there’s a reason so many of them were at the airport.

    Future, as Carver put it, I’ll just use skype. This is even possible with many phones that don’t have service at all. You can get some of them to connect to the free wireless network at the airport and from there load the skype java application. It doesn’t work great, but it can get the job done. You can then pay for minutes on skype to normal landlines.

    Another option will be to use email. My kindle has an option to load a primitive browser and from there, I can send an email via gmail.

    Finally, if your flight is delayed or rerouted, the Europeans have a rule that requires them to provide you with a free phone call or email. I’ll use that as well.

  • GeoffDepew

    IDT is a pit of horror and despair. I worked in their Internet services section in the 90s and the amount of casual labor law violation showed them to be far ahead of their time – some companies would take until the later half of the 200x’s to get there.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I bought an AT&T calling card at Wally World. Used it a few times, then left it in my luggage when I returned home. Several years later, on vacation, I needed it (no service on a barrier island). Wonder of wonder, it still worked. And I think it hadn’t lost any minutes.

  • Global Nomad couple

    One word: no phone. We have been 7 years without. Never again.

  • Alan Gore

    The biggest ripoff is that prepaid minutes expire. I have always wanted to get a simple phone for my wife for the occasional times when we’re not traveling together. I haven’t found a prepaid plan yet whose minutes don’t expire – and when they do, you lose your phone number and the phone itself becomes worthless.

  • Jennifer

    It’s not clear in your article if you are referring to domestic calling cards or international calling cards. For international calling, there are alternatives to hard cards, specifically pinless options which are often much “cleaner”–no extra/hidden fees or minutes that expire. You also don’t have to remember some long pin, your phone number is your pin (hence pinless). The system recognizes you when you dial into an access number and then you just dial the country code and phone number you want to connect to. The company I use has unlimited calling plans to certain locations for $10/month (of course unlimited does not equal abusive). I use and have had a great experience.