Cellphone contracts can be pretty slippery for consumers.
Case in point: a Sprint contract with James Gray, a Fort Worth resident. Gray said he signed up with Sprint because it offered something he wanted -- an annual phone upgrade, instead of the two-year free upgrade to a new handset that most carriers offer.
"I like staying on top of cutting-edge phone trends," he said this week.
Seven months into his contract, however, Sprint notified Gray that he was no longer eligible for that benefit unless he also upgraded his cell plan, and consequently his monthly fee.
Gray contacted the company, which eventually offered him out of his contract in one year, waiving the early termination fee. But the early-out deal wasn't available for his wife, who is also on the plan.
"They have somewhat resolved it with me, but it's left a bitter taste in my mouth," he said. "It isn't resolved in my mind."
A Sprint representative said that as of April 1, the wireless provider's premier service, which includes the phone upgrade, is being split into two levels, gold and silver. The gold level, which includes an annual phone upgrade, costs $169.99 for a shared plan and $89 for an individual plan.
Gray was paying at $129.99 for his base plan.
Nichole Cappitelli, a Sprint spokeswoman, said the company has the right to change or terminate its upgrade program at any time.
"It's a loyalty program made to give something back to the customer," she said.
Turns out it's not unusual for cellphone contracts to have such outs for the company.
"Most cellphone contracts have an elastic clause for them to change the terms with notice," said Dave Buckley, president of the Greater Kansas City Better Business Bureau, which monitors Sprint complaints nationally. Sprint is based in Overland Park, Kan.
In the past three years, Sprint has been the subject of more than 25,000 complaints, so many that the BBB set up a special complaint center to work through the cases, Buckley said.
Overall, he said, Sprint has been "very cooperative" in offering resolutions to customer complaints. Most complaining customers are given offers similar to Gray's -- waiving termination fees and allowing them an early out to the contract.
I contacted several government agencies, including the Public Utility Commission, which said it investigates consumer complaints for telephone services, but not for cellphones. The Federal Communications Commission says it regulates cellphone service, but not cellphone contracts.
That led me to the Texas attorney general's office, which told me it has received 156 complaints about Sprint, including three that are similar to Gray's, in the past two years.
A spokesman for the attorney general recommended that Gray file a complaint with the AG's office, which does not do individual investigations but will start an investigation if it hears from enough consumers about the same issue.
In the meantime, Gray said he searched online forums and found similar complaints. A website service called The Point has started a campaign that aims to force Sprint to revert to its old terms for premier service, including the annual phone upgrade. So far, 56 people have signed up.
Clark Howard, a consumer advocate in Atlanta, recommends using a prepaid cellphone, which requires you to pay for your cellphone upfront but lets you avoid signing a contract. Prepaid carriers even have smartphone service capabilities.
Among them are MetroPCS, Virgin Mobile, Straight Talk and Common Sense Mobile.
As for Gray, he says he has already been shopping in the Verizon store.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.