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A Cellphone for Seniors: Jitterbug Features & Complaints

Updated on July 19, 2016
The Jitterbug Phone: New or Old? 1999 Samsung cell phone (left); Jitterbug (center); Blackberry (right). The Jitterbug is retro to the earliest cell phones. They flip open like a Star Trek communicator and have buttons actually large enough to use!
The Jitterbug Phone: New or Old? 1999 Samsung cell phone (left); Jitterbug (center); Blackberry (right). The Jitterbug is retro to the earliest cell phones. They flip open like a Star Trek communicator and have buttons actually large enough to use! | Source

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.

No one ever complains about this Jitterbug!
No one ever complains about this Jitterbug! | Source

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.

Operator Service

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.

Jitterbug Apps

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.

The classic, and indestructible, dial phone was not sold, but leased from Western Electric to go with AT&T landline phone service.
The classic, and indestructible, dial phone was not sold, but leased from Western Electric to go with AT&T landline phone service. | Source

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!

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    • Sethughes profile image

      Sethughes 4 years ago

      Loved this hub, even though I have an Iphone. It was interesting to read!

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Sethughes! Enjoy your iPhone!

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 4 years ago from Malaysia

      This is a very thorough and well-researched article. Well done. I like your closing remark, which sums it all 'Things were so easy in the good old days'

    • krsharp05 profile image

      krsharp05 4 years ago from 18th and Vine

      There isn't anything worse than bad customer service when you are trying to alleviate a problem. The phone is actually cleverly designed however, the service doesn't sound as canny. I have to say, I did get a laugh out of the jitterbug dancers. Thanks for that. I actually recall the days of rotary dial phones but mostly just on The Brady Bunch - LOL. Your hubs are always so well researched and easy to read. I hadn't hear of Jitterbug phones until now, I can't believe you've had the same phone since 1999! Wow! Great job Sid. -K

    • profile image

      NetflixReviews 4 years ago from Somewhere in North America

      We are about the same age. I was doing technical support at Apple in 1999 and had my first cell phone (and my first computer) years earlier. I don't think that age is really the issue here. I have been working on a professioal license for a while now and a couple years ago a kid came up to me at school totally amazed that I was texting someone (like this was a shocking thing to someone his age). I think it's like this there are luddites people who do not get technology regardless of age and people like you and me who obviously do. I know people in their 20's now who still can't figure out how to use a cell phone or a computer, they're just real quiet about it.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Kristi! That 1999 phone is my back up - I use the blackberry now - but it's tough as nails!

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, GreatStuff! The era of simple indestructible products is gone, sadly!

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, NetflixReviews! I think you're right on about what's going on. It would be interesting to know if any younger folks are buying Jitterbugs for ease-of-use, or maybe just for retro style!

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago

      I don't have a dial phone, but I do use a corded landline as my primary phone. I still remember the early cellphone companies who demanded contracts and charged high fees if you needed to cancel. I don't use a cellphone if I can help it. Good hub, Sid.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks Watergeek. Our society does offer several generations of technological alternatives, and we can find which ones make us happy!

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 4 years ago from Southern Arizona

      Great Hub. Thanks for doing this research Sid! We have an elderly friend who I almost convinced to get a Jitterbug. I had seen their commercials and thought the phone would be perfect for his needs. However, like anything else marketed to seniors, I am highly suspect. It seems most of these companies are more interested in profit than helping people. Long story short, he ended up buying a no-contract flip phone through AT&T. Happy ending.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

      This is one of the best cell phone reviews I've ever read. I know quite a few people who are considering getting the Jitterbug phone for their parents or grandparents, and before they do, I'm going to send them to this Hub.

      I'm surprised by some of the downsides you've discovered, so I'm really glad you're sharing them!

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Simone! I was surprised and disappointed, too - all ready to go to the store, and changed my mind.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Linda. I'll look into that for my father-in-law.

    • gonce007 profile image

      gonce007 4 years ago

      Great research work on phones for older once dear,really nice hub love to buy one for my parents.

      keep doing this great work sidkemp :)

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Gonce! Let us know which phone you get, and how it works out for your folks!

    • gonce007 profile image

      gonce007 4 years ago

      Sure Sid, i will let you know about that..:)

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks!

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

      Thanks for this very thorough and interesting review, SidKemp! So far I'm happy with my iPhone, but I have a couple older friends who might want to get the Jitterbug phone. I'll certainly share this hub with them. :)

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Om. Major phone companies, including AT&T, are now offering simple phone plans that give the Jitterbug ease of use in phone services, but not the medical/health support.

    • ercramer36 profile image

      Eric Cramer 4 years ago from Chicagoland

      Very informative hub! I am shocked by all of the problems with this phone.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Yes, it's sad when a company that offers a solid product and service gets scared about the quarterly bottom line and cuts quality and caring to make more money.

    • profile image

      chuck 4 years ago

      ou're charged for the time of the call.

      It's very disappointing.

      Jitterbug customer in Texas

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi Chuck - yes, the Jitterbug idea is a great one, but the whole program is disappointing. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      You saved me a lot of research and probably headache were I to have tried the Jitterbug. Your analysis of what situations are best fitting uses of this service and device helped me to clearly see it is not the one for me or my husband. Thanks!

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Glad I could help, Ms. Dee. If you find good phone services for you and your husband, come back and let us know.

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Another cell phone service that uses the Verizon network is "PagePlus". It is a pay-as-you-go, no contract service that I happened to find a few days ago. I'm very seriously considering it to avoid these new pay scales at the major networks where one has to by huge amounts of data each month but like a smartphone, as we are light data users. (mysupplyworld.com even offers refurbished Verizon phones for PagePlus--if you don't want to buy a used one on Ebay.)

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Ms. Dee, for telling us about Verizon PagePlus. If you get it, come back and tell us if you like it!

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Just a point of clarification; it is not through Verizon, but a different company that uses the Verizon network. It is in the same way Virgin Mobile is allowed to use Sprint's network, but is not a part of Sprint.

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      thanks for the clarification, Ms. Dee. Please let us know how to find PagePlus, and whether you like it.

    • profile image

      Suzy Frame 4 years ago

      Thanks so much for sharing this information! I think it is super interesting how far cell phones have come in the last little bit! I have been looking into going to bell - lawrence west to see what they can offer me! I have been doing research and this website has been helpful as well: storelocator.bell.ca

    • SidKemp profile image
      Author

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Suzi. I think we'll see more and more cell phone options that are directed towards special markets as time goes on.

    • profile image

      jeanette 4 months ago

      I just need a cell phone that has larger numbers - so difficult to text. I'm 83. I like to buy prepaid minutes (usually sign up for the year). I'd love to find one with a decent camera also. I wouldn't mind paying a good price up front, camera, large text, and prepaid minutes. No monthly payments. I'm wondering if that

      exists.

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