Even good services can impose a light-fingered touch on your budget

John Breeden II, GCN Lab director

Buying technology and products these days can be a bit like the old trick where a magician asks someone in the audience for a $20 bill, then makes it disappear. Nice trick, but the $20 doesn't seem to reappear.

In the GCN Lab, we've recently seen some services that, with presto-like speed, can make your money vanish. Some of them are worth it, some aren't.

One of the easiest ways to run up a big bill is with a cell phone. Take Verizon Communications Inc. of New York and its 'Get it now' service.

I was given a test phone packed with advanced features. I decided to test it out in the field. You simply browse a colorful picture menu, and if you see something you like, download it to your phone. I quickly zeroed in on a 'Lord of the Rings' game and after about a minute of downloading, the game was installed on the phone.

Another program gave accurate weather reports. One offered to predict the future in a what's-your-sign fashion.

I was having a great time until I realized that the services were not free. Granted, my review account was being billed back to Verizon public relations'sorry about that huge fee, by the way'but standard users would be racking up charges on their wireless bills.

The charges aren't hidden'each time you want to download a new program, you are warned that doing so will cost you $3.99 or $4.99 or whatever'but it just seems so easy. It wouldn't be difficult to dribble away your budget in colorful, byte-sized chunks.

Instant messaging on phones is another good example. Some plans are free. Others will make you pay for each message you receive, which is something you can't really control. I have even seen a camera phone that lets you take all the pictures you want, but charges if you want to transfer those pictures to a computer.

The phones of the near future will be even more advanced, and probably even more of a drain on your wallet. Alcatel SA, a French phone manufacturer, recently announced it was working with French cable companies to develop pay-per-view sports programs for mobile phones equipped with LCD screens. Europe often leads the United States in telecom innovation, so if this works out it won't be long before U.S. companies follow.

Games, instant messages and sporting events are a luxury. Protecting your computer from viruses and hackers is a necessity.

It's disturbing that some antivirus companies seem to want customers to pay more for protection.

In a GCN Lab antivirus roundup this year, we noticed that one line in particular, McAfee Security from Network Associates Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., was breaking out several distinct programs.

If you happen to buy the company's antivirus software, you are prompted though security warnings to purchase three other programs for hacker and spam protection.

This was a bit off-putting to me. It's like paying for building security and then having to pay a separate fee to cover the parking lot.

Other companies are throwing extra protection into the mix. Panda Software of Glendale, Calif., gives antihacker protection for free in its antivirus program, for example. Maybe this just comes down to numbers, and Panda needs to attract more customers who are on the fence about which programs to buy.

You need to be careful these days about how your money is spent. Not only are there more choices, but it's easier than ever to spend more than you expected.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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