Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Sep 07 2007, 09:17PM

Here's a riddle for you: When is a minute not a minute

Here's a riddle for you: When is a minute not a minute? When it's on a prepaid calling card! These cards are typically labeled "30 minutes," "60 minutes," and so on. But what you're really paying for is "units" of time on the phone. Usually a calling card minute will buy you a one-minute local phone call. International calls cost more and there are all sorts of other exceptions which can make your "30 minute" card last for less time.

Hidden service fees are the most common complaint. Some card companies charge a connection fee plus taxes and surcharges, which eat into your time. Others charge a minimum number of minutes each time you use the card. Maybe your phone call only lasts thirty seconds but the card company charges you for three minutes. Some companies debit your card even if your call doesn't go through. You should also know that many prepaid calling cards expire –usually a year after the initial use.

In addition to the above rip-offs, some prepaid calling cards are out and out scams. You may find that the access number is always busy or the PIN number doesn't work. When you go to call the company to complain, you discover the customer service number is a 900 number or is always busy or isn't in service. Cards with unbelievably cheap prices often give you unbelievably bad connections, so you can't even hear the person you're calling. And many consumers have found that the calling card company went out of business before they could use up their card.

QUESTIONS TO ASK: If you plan to use a prepaid calling card a lot, call the company before you buy.
1. Will I be charged when I call somebody and they don't answer the phone?
2. Is there a minimum charge per call? How much?
3. Are there any service fees I should know about?
4. Can I add time to my card or trade it in for a refund when there's too little credit left to make a call?
5. Will the company replace my card if it's lost or stolen?
6. Does the card expire?

1. Consider buying only name-brand prepaid calling cards from companies that are well established, like major phone companies.
2. If you must buy a calling card from an unknown company, dial the company's customer service number before you buy and see if you can get through. If not, take your business elsewhere.
3. Ask the store where you purchase the card whether you can get a refund if the calling card service is unsatisfactory.
4. The first time you use a company's calling card, purchase only a small amount of minutes so you can decide whether you're satisfied with the service.
5. Shop around for the calling card with the best rates for your needs. Some cards have good domestic rates. Others offer attractive international plans.
6. Try to find a card company that issues you a replacement number (usually printed on a separate piece of paper.) If your card is lost or stolen, you use that number to get a new card.