A Cellphone for Seniors: Jitterbug Features & Complaints
Do Retiring Baby Boomers Need Their Own Cell Phone?
I'm 51 years old, and I was born at the tail end of the baby boom. I've had my cell phone since 1999. I mostly use basic features. I've used the camera, but never uploaded any of the photos. So I understand the desire for a simple phone that happens to be a cell phone, with no special features, especially for people like my Dad and my parents in-law, who never used anything wireless except a radio.
The GreatCall company saw the potential of this market, and created the Jitterbug phone. Even after my research, I still have one big unanswered question: Is GreatCall here to serve seniors, or to prey upon the elderly and disabled? Individual experiences vary, but the billing and customer service problems seem serious and systemic, not accidental or occasional.
I wrote this article as I researched the Jitterbug and its plans, hoping to buy one for my father-in-law. (That's what my mother-in-law told me to do!) After the research, I probably won't get one. The Jitterbug is a great concept, and it certainly works for some people. But, based on the reviews I read the company behind it seems more focused on making money than on helping customers, at least some of the time. Anyone who dug deeper than the company's own image found problems, and that concerns me. Read on to see if the rewards of a Jitterbug phone exceed the risks for you or for your parents.
The Jitterbug: A Great Concept, but . . .
The bottom line on the Jitterbug phone and Verizon service through GreatCall is that it's a great concept but it's not clear that it's a great company. Based on a review of customer complaints, it looks like there's a serious chance of overcharges and difficulty cancelling service.
The Jitterbug With Verizon Service
A cell phone is a complicated piece of electronics, no matter how simple it looks. And quality cell phone service depends on the wireless network as well as the phone itself. Each phone must connect reliably to a cell tower, and on into the phone system, for there to be a good connection.
GreatCall Wireless, providers of the Jitterbug phone and service, originally used a number of different service providers. That changed in August 2009, when GreatCall made an arrangement with Verizon Wireless to provide all of their services. That would seem to provide high-quality nationwide coverage, but it hasn't. The quality of coverage also depends on the quality of the cell phone, and many customers report poor connections on Jitterbug phones. My experience in cell phone technology leads me to consider the possibility that the Jitterbug's loudspeaker is likely to create a lot of noise and distortion when the cell phone service (the connection to the cell tower) is weak.
Problems and Complaints About the Jitterbug
In writing this article, I read over 3 dozen customer reviews of the Jitterbug phone and its service, and scanned at least 20 more. I picked up reviews all across the web. There were many complaints posted at the Consumer Affairs website, and reviews at Amazon were mixed, with 14 4 or 5-star reviews and 8 1 or 2-star reviews. Every service will run into complaints. However, the nature of the complaints about the Jitterbug was disturbing. The complaints were across the board: about billing; about customer service; about reliability of service, and a few about the phone itself.
Billing and Cancellation Problems
GreatCall apparently charges a hidden $35 activation fee for a phone that they say comes already activated! However, the biggest problem seems to be that when people cancel service, they very often find that service was not cancelled, or that a very high final bill was charged with no explanation. It appears common that customers expect a final bill of $14.95 and get a final bill for $86.00.
Supposedly, if you cancel service within 30 days and use less than 30 minutes of phone time, you will get a full refund. However, it turns out that numerous fees are not refunded, that phones may be refused if not in perfect condition, and that GreatCall may not recognize the date of your request to cancel service.
Recommendation: If you decide to cancel Jitterbug service from GreatCall, be sure to contact your credit card company and tell them to refuse all further automatic charges from GreatCall. That way, if GreatCall sends an unjustified service fee, you will not have to fight to get your money back.
Excessive Fees and Insufficient Information on Bills
GreatCall's per-minute rate for minutes over your limit is $0.35/minute, which is very high. And they charge for 5 minutes ($1.75) for connecting to an operator to get help, yet their advertising gives the impression that the operator service is included for free with the basic service.
Bills contain a total, but no itemized information. And dissatisfied customers report that they did not use their phone at all for a month, and yet were charged for minutes that they could not possibly have used. In one case, a customer downgraded his service and stopped using his phone. But GreatCall back-dated the downgrade to the beginning of the month and charged a huge fee for calls already made.
Recommendation: Be very clear about the service you choose and the hidden fees and charges before you sign up. If you see a discount or promise on line, be sure to be able to point directly to the web page that makes this offer.
Rude and Hostile Customer Service
One frequent customer complaint was that GreatCall Customer Service Representatives argued with them. For example, a customer saw that a certain phone included a charger, but then came without a charger. The GreatCall representative demanded to be shown the information on the website, then simply said that that offer was no longer true. The representative then said the item would be shipped, but it never was.
These problems seem to extend beyond the customer service department. One customer returned a phone that had never been used for repair, and the technical service department declared it water damaged, requiring the customer to buy a new, expensive phone. There is some sense that the fraudulent declaration of water damage may be a way that GreatCall technical service avoids giving new phones for free when it can't fix old ones. And it is impossible to speak to anyone in the billing department; they have no direct phone service to customers.
Reliability of Service, Call Quality, and Coverage Areas
Many customers asked if they were within the GreatCall coverage area - that is, the area with reasonably high-quality cellular service - and were told that they were. They ordered their phones, activated them, and found service very poor. They then called in to complain and were told that, in fact, they were not in a good service area. To make matters more complicated, the Jitterbug phone does not display a call signal quality indicator on the phone display - the indicator is buried in a back menu.
The Jitterbug Phone
The Jitterbug phone is built by Samsung, generally considered to be an excellent cell phone manufacturer. It was supposedly designed to work well for people with hearing impairments and hearing aids. Some customers say it works just fine for them. Others say that the sound or the ring is not loud enough. It may be that the phone is just fine, but that some people's hearing is insufficient, and others are in poor coverage areas for the Jitterbug. In short, the phone had fewer problems than the network, customer service, or billing, so it seems to be the strongest part of a weak package. But it also does not seem to be Samsung's best product.
Although specifications indicated that this phone in some way worked well with hearing aids, I was unable to find any specific reference to a setting to be used with hearing aids, or to a statement of how well it did, in fact, work.
Overall Corporate Response
Some companies handle complaints well. GreatCall does not appear to be one of these. None of the customer complaints discussed above appears on their web site or in their literature. There are no corporate announcements about recognizing either technical or customer service problems and committing to fix them.
In fact, GreatCall claims to have won a "customer service" award, but, in fact, the recognition was for their service concept for paid services, possibly from an affiliated company, and was not an award for their actual customer service. Regarding the numerous complaints I found on the web, the only responses I saw from GreatCall were two apologies to individual customers who had published complaints on a consumer complaint web site, and the response contained no specifics of the remedy offered.
The Jitterbug's Best Features
The Funniest Phone Feature Ever
I don't know if this is a joke, or if it really happened. But there's a story going around that a little boy saw how often his parents were running around hunting for their lost cell phones, and said, "They should invent a phone with a cord attached, so you can't lose it!"
5Star for Health and Safety
Jitterbug's 5Star feature allows the customer to hit two keys - 5* - and be connected to an operator trained to help people and to connect them to 911, as well. Jitterbug also has a cellular device with just a single button to call for help. The 5Star system functions like a medical alert system for people on the go. Combined with the system of medication reminders and the 24/7 service that allows a customer to talk to a registered nurse, these features provide a strong sense of security and support for elderly people who get out and around in spite of health conditions.
The Jitterbug's best features are the phone itself and the personalized operator service and special assistance for elderly customers.
The Jitterbug Plus Phone
The Jitterbug Plus phone itself is a classic flip-phone with large, well-illuminated keys and an extra-bright screen showing large numbers as you dial. Or you can get any of the Jitterbug plans with the less-expensive flat phone, the Samsung SCH-r100.
The ring-tone cannot be changed, but it is loud and distinctive. The speaker volume is adjustable, and loud enough for most people, though, as reported above, some customers do report volume and sound quality problems.
A Jitterbug user can call an operator at any time, and the operator will say hello to the customer by name. The operator can place calls, update automatic call lists, and so forth. However, each operator call counts as five minutes ($1.75) plus the length of the conversation, so it is quite expensive. Still, for someone who needs to make calls and can't dial or set up autodial himself or herself, this is a useful feature. And once autodial is set up, the customer can say the name of the person to call, and the phone will dial without operator assistance.
A phone originally claiming to be distinctive by having no apps now, of course, has apps. The Jitterbug apps are all aimed at elderly people. The most useful (and expensive) one is 5Star Urgent Response, which connects the customer to a service representative trained in handling emergency management. The representative can handle a number of situations, and can also locate the user via the phone's GPS, and then call 911, if necessary. 5Star includes LiveNurse, which allows a customer to speak to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or LiveNurse can be purchased separately for $4.00.
One example of the confusing, and perhaps deceptive qualities of GreatCall is that the Apps & Services page shows a "price" for each service, but it does not say if this is a one-time price, or a monthly fee. Also, VoiceMail, which is free with most cell phones, is a $3.00 service on the Jitterbug.
Jitterbug Service Plans
Note: Service plans were viewed when this article was written in early July 2012. Please do not make any decisions based on the summary information about service plans in this article. Prices change, and the service plans include additional charges that are not fully described here.
The least expensive service plan from GreatCall for the Jitterbug phone is the Basic 14, for $14.99 per month, giving 50 minutes of call time. However, operator assistance would use 5 minutes of those for each call. So this really allows just a few calls a month, and is best for a phone used only for emergency purposes. The Basic 19 plan ($19.99/month) increases that to 100 minutes a month, but that is still less than 2 hour of talk time.
The Premium plan is available for $39.99 per month with 400 daytime minutes (over 6 hours of talk time) and unlimited night and weekend minutes, and includes LiveNurse. The Simply Unlimited plan is $79.99 per month and includes LiveNurse and operator assistance.
If you want to avoid the $0.35/minute overage charge, you can buy extra minutes for rates between $0.10 and $0.17 per minute, depending on quantity. These minutes expire after one year.
Is a Jitterbug Right for You?
When I started to research this article, I had hoped to confirm my understanding of the Jitterbug concept, then go out and buy one. My father-in-law just moved into an elder care facility, and it seems that it would be a perfect way for him to be able to talk to his wife, now 1,500 miles away, without us showing up to lend him one of our cell phones.
I was distressed to find such a wide gap between the company's marketing and media image and the actual customer experiences on reliable complaint and evaluation sites, including Consumer Affairs and Amazon. I was even more distressed to find that, if problems did arise, or if my father simply found he was unable to use any phone, that there was no reliable way to take advantage of the 30-day money-back guarantee. That some customers have found themselves in an expensive customer service nightmare for trying to cancel service is a big concern for me.
At the same time, clearly, there are many satisfied Jitterbug customers out there. And the services offered to customers (as opposed to the customer service) are excellent. If my own circumstances were different, I'd be likely to get a Jitterbug. Here are three situations where I think a Jitterbug and a phone service plan from GreatCall can make sense:
- If an elderly person gets out and around, and wants the advantage of being able to dial *5 in case of a problem or medical emergency, this is a valuable service. Here, the Jitterbug plus *5 service could do dual duty as both a cell phone and also a Medical Alert device.
- If an elderly person wants a simple phone, can afford the appropriate plan (probably the unlimited plan) and wants up to six reminder calls a day to help with taking medication or checking on pain or other medical symptoms with the $5.00 (per month, I think) Check-in Call service.
- If a family wants to talk a lot, and one or more people needs the simplicity of a Jitterbug, the free minutes for shared phones service might do well.
If you or someone in your family fits into one of the three situations above, then consider these issues as you choose whether to use a Jitterbug or some other service or device.
- Are you confident that the person can use a cell phone?
- Are you willing to help set it up and add numbers, or to pay for the Unlimited service, to avoid operator calls?
- Are you willing to go onto a web site to set up various phone features and emergency contact numbers?
- If you face problems - such as items not included in a shipment - are you ready to stand your ground with customer service and get what you paid for?
- If you do need to cancel service and return the phone, are you prepared to contact your credit card company first and block any charges you don't approve, so that you don't have to fight to get your money back?
If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions, then you're ready for the risks - as well as the rewards - of owning a Jitterbug phone.
Things were so easy in the good old days!