I think it was the comedian George Carlin who said that a pessimist is nothing more than a disappointed optimist, so it was no surprise that many consumers didn’t get overly excited when they first heard of the telephone service magicJack -- a device that lets you make long distance or local calls for next to nothing.
And like many new products, the concept of magicJack sounded awesome when we first learned there was a company that would allow consumers to place calls anywhere within the United States and Canada for one low fee. Sure, we were used to this kind of package deal with our cell phone plans, but not with our landlines.
At first people seemed to be pretty happy with magicJack and its service -- and some still are -- but somewhere between the initial offering and the device becoming popular, let’s just say a few things went awry.
It all started back in 2007, when the magicJack creators burst onto the consumer scene with a device that plugged into your USB port and allowed you to place calls via your high-speed Internet connection.
With magicJack, you could either call local or long distance for a little under $30. The tiny black device itself cost a little under $30 too.
About four years later the company released magicJack Plus, which was supposed to be even more useful because you could plug it into your phone jack without a computer, and shortly after its release even more consumers were willing to give the so-called revolutionary device a try.
Today, the standard magicJack costs $39.95, according to the company’s website, which doesn’t include shipping and handling and the magicJack Plus goes for $69.95.
And of course a lot of people use the device around the world, so folks in the U.S. or Canada can choose to call them or vice versa.
For example, if you have a relative in the Caribbean and you’d like to call them without breaking the bank, they can purchase a magicJack, set it up with a US or Canadian number and both of you can speak without long-distance charges.
Some of the features that come with magicJack are the same as a traditional phone line -- with caller ID, its own directory assistance and call waiting, which isn’t a big deal these days. But when the company announced that customers would be able to keep their own phone numbers, it caught the attention of those who not yet used the device and those existing customers who really wanted to keep their existing number.
Not everyone applauds
Both in advertisements and on its website, the company says that magicJack has the best call quality and that it will save consumers up to $1,000 yearly, an assertion many people emphatically disagree with.
Many consumers believed the costs that were advertised by the company would be the beginning and the end of their expense, unless they renewed their yearly subscription, and some people like Cindy of Arkansas say they were offered a price of $19.95 for one year of service, which is lower than what's offered on the company’s website.
But Cindy said the $19.995 was just to lure her in and once she was lured, she found out there were more charges around the bend, and in order to get the special offer, she’d have to be locked in with the company for five whole years.
“I bought a magicJack Plus and got the service for a year for $19.95,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs posting.
“My year is almost up and I found out that I have to pay $29.95 for a year. The only way you can get the $19.95 rate is if you buy the service for five years in advance. There is nothing in the TV commercials or website that tells you this. Both website and TV commercials say that you can get the service for $19.95 a year.”
“I think this is false advertisement," she wrote. "There should be something you can do about this. I did talk to a rep on their chat line and they told me that they have fees and such, but wouldn’t discuss what kind of fees or what it has to do with the basic price that they tell you that you have to pay each year.”
Nesrin, of Great Mills, Md. also ended up paying more than he expected to use magicJack’s services, which seems to be a common problem among a lot of consumers.
“I paid for the phone number I have had for many years,” wrote Nesrin.
“The prepaid international could not be transferred, so I lost what I had paid for that account. I figured it would still be okay since it would cost me $69 until 2018, because I received emails with promotion that could cost me $69 for six years, so I paid the amount on the account with magicJack Plus."
“A year later in November, I started getting messages that my number had expired. magicJack will not tell you that your number has to be renewed each year. Oh well, no whining here, so I did pay for it. The error messages continued. So I went to renew, thinking it must be just a click. There was no click. I had to pay again, so I tried calling the number that was posted on my credit statement because you cannot find a number to call on the website.”
And although not everyone was dissatisfied with the signal quality that magicJack produced, a number of folks said calls had a consistent transistor-radio-like static.
“I bought magicJack Plus,” wrote one of our Connecticut readers. “The reception was horrible. I paid $30 to have the number ported back to Comcast and though it supposedly was for weeks now, all calls are answered by a magicJack voice mail.”
And probably one of the most annoying things about the company, say consumers, is the way you have to communicate with a customer service person through live chat in order to resolve something, which hardly ever helps a person when they’re in a crunch and need quick, fast and accurate answers.
In addition, many readers said they were referred back to the website when they had any questions that weren’t routine, and for the most part, their issues regarding billing and service weren't ever remedied.
We reached out to magicJack for a comment and we're still waiting for a reply.
What to do
One thing most magicJack users seem to miss is that they really don't need magicJack to make phone calls over the Internet. First of all, anyone who has the kind of broadband connection that magicJack requires can make calls using Skype and similar Internet phone services, like Vonage, that include a lot more features than magicJack.
Skype works through your computer and, depending on how your machine is set up, may not require any accessories. If you want a headset, they're available for a few dollars. Calls to other Skype members are free.
The pricing is very simple and there is no long-term commitment.
Even simpler, if you're not technically inclined, is to get telephone service through the phone or cable company that provides your Internet service. Most providers offer service "bundles" that include telephone, Internet and TV service. You may even be paying for it already. Check with your provider.
If you're really determined to save money, you may be able to get by using your cell phone for all your calls. If reception is good in your area, it may be a good option. Check with your carrier to see if you should upgrade your plan to add more minutes to your calling plan.