Pre-Paid Phone Cards

FRESNO, Calif.

Victorina Calixto uses prepaid phone cards to talk to her family in Mexico.

She complains she often does not get the minutes listed on the card. Consumer reports' investigation of prepaid phone cards finds there are a lot of fees that eat away at a card's value.

"There are call-connection fees, call-completion fees, and there are even fees that can be charged daily, monthly, or weekly whether you use your card or not," Tony Giorgianni said.

And all the cards consumer reports looked at charge a per-call fee if you use a pay phone, some as high as #1.

There are also huge differences when it comes to rates. For calls to Mexico, you can pay as little as one cent a minute or as high as 32 cents. Rates for calls to Guatemala range from six cents to 54 cents a minute.

"The best way to protect yourself is to look at the terms and conditions very carefully," Giorgianni said.

But that can be difficult in a store where cards are often behind the counter.

Consumer reports says far better is shopping online, where it's easier to get information, and you'll find a greater selection. Try independent sites like Zaptel or the major phone companies.

"And look for one that's rechargeable. But watch out, some of the rechargeable cards charge a fee to recharge them."

Consumer reports says Pingo.com is a good choice for prepaid calling. It offers good rates, a low pay-phone fee, and doesn't charge for recharging - all in all, a good deal for someone like Victorina, who wants to stay in touch without breaking the bank.

Also consider Skype, an internet-based phone service. While the caller needs a computer, the person on the other end does not, and the international rates can be very inexpensive.

Before buying a prepaid card, consumer reports says check with your landline or cell-phone company to see if they offer an affordable international plan.

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