VirginMobileUSA – Missing Error Message

Every time I come to the US I have a cellphone problem. International roaming from Vodafone Italy works inconsistently, if at all, with US carriers. The first time I landed in Denver I spent a very frustrating half-hour trying to contact the friend who was coming to pick me up: the T-Mobile network that my phone logged onto in the airport would not let me call, and gave an irrelevant error message which did not explain why (“The caller is not enabled for this service” – since when does a phone owner not allow herself to receive a call?). I sent SMS, but adult Americans are not yet accustomed to using text messages on their phones, so my friend didn’t know how to read it.

Dan bought a phone for me and future visitors to use when here, but before I arrived this time he had realized that it was absurd to pay Cingular a dollar a day to keep the service active when no one was using it. So I had to figure out the most cost-effective solution for myself this time around.

I picked up phone plan brochures from a store and just as the young man at Circuit City had told me, my best bet was VirginMobile: they offer monthly or by-the-minute plans with no contract. I bought the cheapest phone they offer ($20), though I wouldn’t recommend this model (a Kyocera) – it’s the slowest phone I’ve ever encountered, taking a second to respond to a button press to invoke a menu. And the battery life is crap. But it took me a few days to perceive these shortcomings. Next time I won’t buy the cheapest.

When I got it home, I had to deal with signing up with VirginMobile. First I tried their activation website. I followed the clear and easy multi-step process to select the plan I wanted ($100 for a month, with 1000 anytime minutes and free nights and weekends).

After 5 or 6 steps answering questions and making selections, I was supposed to enter the phone’s serial number. Following the instructions on the site, I located it on a sticker inside the phone’s battery bay. It is printed in very small type, and there was one digit which could have been a 5 or a 6. I took a guess, entered a serial number in the text box on the site, and clicked the Submit button.

I suddenly found myself back at the beginning of the activation process, with no explanation as to why I was there. I knew the activation hadn’t been completed, because I had not yet been asked for any personal information, credit card, etc. But I had no clue what had gone wrong. Was the site simply broken? I tried twice more, with the same result.

There was nothing for it but to call the toll-free number to activate by phone. I had to do this from my friend’s cellphone, which cost her minutes. (I know most people don’t care about this, having far more minutes than they actually use every month – and Tin Tin certainly didn’t – but I’m always acutely aware of it.)

The automated phone system is done with a “hip” young voice, obviously designed to appeal to the majority of Virgin’s customers, which instantly grated on my bitchy-middle-aged-lady nerves. Having to g through a phone tree to make the same choices I had already made three times on the website was also irritating, though understandable. But I was not pleased when the cheerful recorded voice advised me, during a wait period, that I could do all this myself on the website! Believe me, honey, if I coulda, I woulda.

I finally got a live operator (who had a distractingly bad head cold but was nice and competent) and went through a bunch more choices. When we got to the serial number, she told me that number was already in use. This explained the problem I had on the website – it choked when I entered the wrong number. But instead of telling me that was the problem, it bounced me out of the process without any explanation. Not helpful.
Then it came time to pay. Uh oh. Here we go again. My credit card, though issued in the US, has a foreign billing address. Many or most American companies can’t deal with that. The operator I was speaking to spoke to a supervisor, but there was nothing to be done. I had to borrow Tin Tin’s credit card to pay for the phone. Which is ridiculous and humiliating for a grown woman who is otherwise completely capable of managing her own financial life!


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