The Philadelphia Inquirer What happens when your cell phone is lost or stolen? If you're lucky, not much. But then again, you could suffer the fate of Bonnie McLain, a Medford woman whose AWOL cell phone ended up giving her seven months of misery. It culminated in a demand from a collection agency for $ 900 for calls apparently made by a thief - and, to top it off, an additional $ 300 as a collection fee. McLain learned the hard way something that all users should keep in mind: Cell-phone contracts hold the user responsible for all calls until a phone is reported lost or stolen. In other words, it's not like what happens if your credit card is lost or stolen. In such a case, federal law limits your liability to $ 50 even if the card is used for thousands of dollars in purchases. Should the rules for phones be similar? Take a look at McLain's story and see what you think. A phone for emergencies Like many people, Bonnie McLain wanted a phone to keep in her car, largely for emergencies. Thanks to a Cingular Wireless family plan, it was an easy and inexpensive convenience. Until July, that is, when McLain was out of work with a hurt back and her car sat unused, and no one noticed the phone missing from the car. McLain didn't figure it out till the Cingular bill came in early August, including more than 20 pages of itemized calls for her rarely used number. All told, more than a thousand calls were made that month from the phone, generating $ 667 in excess airtime charges and $ 186 in roaming charges - this for a wireless customer used to paying $ 100 in monthly fees. In case you're wondering, these weren't calls to anyplace exotic, where Cingular would have to pay expensive interconnection fees. No one called Mauritius on her phone - not even Mexico, or Menlo Park, Calif. The most exotic locales on the bill were Rockville, Md., and Lancaster, Pa. What next? Within the hour, McLain reported the phone missing to Cingular. McLain says she was told that someone from the fraud department would call her back, though no one did. She assumed the problem was taken care of - until the next month's bill came, repeating the disputed charges. She wrote a letter right away, to the attention of the fraud department, again explaining the problem. And for the next six months, the same dance went on. A new bill with the same old charges. Another letter. Sometimes phone calls and faxes. At one point, someone from customer service offered to cut the charges by half, but no one ever put that in writing or adjusted the bill. This week, she finally did get a call back - but only after complaining to New Jersey officials and the Federal Communications Commission. "That's the only reason they responded," she says. "They didn't respond to any of my letters." The Cingular employee's offer was the same as before: We'll drop 50 percent of the charges. But when McLain stuck to her guns, he backed down. Yesterday, a Cingular spokeswoman told me that the company had decided to clear all the disputed charges and collection fees, and to remove any stains from McLain's credit record. It even FedExed her a replacement phone. "I do think it was our error in this case," said the spokeswoman, Kate O'Shaughnessy. Still, O'Shaughnessy said the bigger picture was unchanged: "According to our policy, you're responsible for all charges until you report your phone stolen. So the message here is to keep tabs on your phone." I'm afraid the real message here is: Only the squeaky - and extremely persistent - wheel gets greased. Ironically, McLain says she would have paid half the charges, for calls that Cingular conceded she never made, if that offer had ever been put in writing. Maybe that's the other message here: that McLain was too easy a target - or would have been, if she'd behaved as most customers probably do. Should the rules for phones be like the rules for credit cards? I'm convinced: There ought to be a law.