They continually shift prices up or down according to the number of phone lines you need and the amount of data you're purchasing. They further complicate matters with "special" short-term offers to lure customers from rivals.
The nonprofit organization's rundown breaks down the major carriers' plans, noting pros and cons, and includes tables that allow for easy comparison shopping based on the number of phones and amount of data you want from a plan.
Note that Consumer Reports omitted short-term specials from its calculations, however, "because of their extremely short lifespan and their fragility (deal benefits often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone or makes other changes)."
"AT&T stubbornly clings to variable-rate access fees that can mislead customers into spending more money when they're trying to save," Consumer Reports writes.
On the upside, the company's customers gave it good marks in Consumer Reports' survey for voice, text and Web services.
Sprint is among the lowest-rated carriers in Consumer Reports' ratings for both its monthly billed service and its prepaid service.
The good news is that Sprint's plans are "a bit cheaper" than they used to be, "even besting bargain-champion T-Mobile in some instances," Consumer Reports writes.
T-Mobile plan costs are "only slightly cheaper" than those of AT&T and Verizon.
T-Mobile is advantageous for people who stream a lot, though, as streamed music and video content from providers like Spotify and Netflix does not count against your data allowance.
On the downside, the company does not offer data-sharing plans, which enable you to share your data allowance with other people who have cellphones on your plan.
Verizon "keeps things simple," Consumer Reports writes, charging a flat $20 for each plan on its sharable data plans.
The company also received good marks for voice, text and Web services.
Which of the Big Four carriers do you think is best? Sound off in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.
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Apple chief executive Steve Jobs unveils a new mobile phone that can also be used as a digital music player and a camera, a long-anticipated device dubbed an 'iPhone.' at the Macworld Conference 09 January 2007 in San Francisco. Cisco and Apple announced 21 February 2007 that they had settled their trademark lawsuit over Apple's use of the name iPhone for a new portable device that includes mobile phone features. Cisco sued Apple after the Cupertino, California, maker of iPod MP3 players and Macintosh computers had grandly launched an iPhone device on January 9 with camera, digital music player, and mobile telephone capabilities.
(TONY AVELAR/AFP/Getty Images)
The new Apple iPhone is displayed behind a glass enclosure at the Macworld Conference 09 January 2007 in San Francisco. Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs made the company's long-awaited jump into the mobile phone business during the annual Macworld conference and expo.
(TONY AVELAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Customers look at computers beneath an advertisement for the Apple iPhone in the Apple Soho store June 27, 2007 in New York City. Hype for the iPhone, which will cost $499 or $599, has driven demand into overdrive as it will be released at 6:00 p.m. June 29 nationwide.
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
The new iPhone is seen inside the Apple Store in New York, June 29, 2007. Hundreds lined up on Friday outside the Apple store hours before the iPhone, a combination widescreen iPod, cellphone and pocket Internet device, went on sale at Apple's 164 stores and nearly 1,800 AT&T stores.
People queue to buy the newly released Apple iPhone on the first day of its Japanese launch outside a SoftBank Mobile's flagship store on July 11, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan. The iPhone 3G, priced at 23,040 yen (US $215.25) for the 8GB and 34,560 yen (US $322.82) for the 16GB in Japan, is a multimedia mobile device with a touch screen that enables email and web browsing, as well as being a portable media player.
(Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
A 16GB iPhone 3G sits on display in the Apple store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York, U.S., on Friday, July 11, 2008. Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs is aiming at Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry as the iPhone 3G goes on sale in 22 countries today, almost quadrupling the markets for the handset, which has better audio quality, lets users run software from outside developers and adds support for corporate e-mail systems.
(Photo by Gino Domenico/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Apple Corporation CEO Steve Jobs speaks about the new iPhone 3G during his keynote speech at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, California June 9, 2008.
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(Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
An Apple iPhone 3GS sits on display inside an AT&T store in New York, U.S, on Thursday, July 23, 2009. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is examining whether AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless stymie wireless competitors by denying them connections and making it hard for subscribers to switch providers. The agency said June 18 it was investigating whether consumers are shortchanged by carriers' exclusive contracts for wireless handsets, such as deals linking Apple Inc.'s iPhone to AT&T.
(Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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Employees work with the Apple iPhone 3GS at the company's retail store in San Francisco, California June 19, 2009. Apple Inc's latest iPhone hit stores on Friday with new features and faster speeds, drawing some fans, but not the crowds that had swarmed the previous iPhone launches.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs discusses the new iPhone 4 during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, California June 7, 2010.
New iPhone 4 models are displayed after Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled it during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, June 7, 2010.
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A collection of white Apple iPhone 4S smartphones, photographed during a studio shoot for Tap Magazine, May 12, 2011.
(Photo by Joby Sessions/Tap Magazine via Getty Images)
Phil Schiller, vice president of worldwide product marketing at Apple Inc., speaks during an event at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. Apple Inc., in its first product unveiling since Steve Jobs resigned as chief executive officer, introduced a faster iPhone with voice features and a higher-resolution camera to help it vie with Google Inc.'s Android.
(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Apple's new iPhone 5 smartphone is on display in an Apple store, on September 21, 2012 in Paris. The iPhone 5 goes on sale on September 21, 2012 in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
The Apple Inc. iPhone 5 is displayed inside the company's store on George Street in Sydney, Australia, on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Apple Inc. is poised for a record iPhone 5 debut and may not be able to keep up with demand as customers line up from Sydney to New York to pick up the latest model of its top-selling product. The device hits stores in eight countries today at 8 a.m. local time, giving customers in Australia the first chance to buy the device.
(Ian Waldie/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An employee tests the fingerprint scanner on the new Apple iPhone 5S at a Verizon store in Orem, Utah September 19, 2013. The iPhone 5C, which comes in blue, green, pink, yellow and white, starts in the U.S. at $99 with a contract and the pricier "5S" begins at $199 with a contract. Both models go on sale in several countries on September 20.
The gold colored version of the new iPhone 5S is displayed after Apple Inc's media event in Cupertino, California September 10, 2013.
Jesse Green from London poses with his iPhone 5S (L) and 5C (R) after being the second person to enter the Apple store after they went on sale in central London on September 20, 2013. Apple's eagerly-awaited iPhone 5S and 5C went of sale in London at 8am.
(BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee shows the the backside of a new Apple iPhone 5C (R) and iPhone 5 S (L) at a Verizon store in Orem, Utah September 19, 2013. The iPhone 5C, which comes in blue, green, pink, yellow and white, starts in the U.S. at $99 with a contract and the pricier "5S" begins at $199 with a contract. Both models go on sale in several countries on September 20.
A new Apple iPhone 5C is on display at a Verizon store in Orem, Utah September 19, 2013. The iPhone 5C, which comes in blue, green, pink, yellow and white, starts in the U.S. at $99 with a contract and the pricier "5S" begins at $199 with a contract. Both models go on sale in several countries on September 20.
The new iPhone 5C is displayed during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013 in Cupertino, California. The company launched the new iPhone 5C model that will run iOS 7 is made from hard-coated polycarbonate and comes in various colors and the iPhone 5S that features fingerprint recognition security.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
An Apple Inc. iPhone 6 Plus, left, and iPhone 6 are displayed for a photograph inside SoftBank Corp.'s Omotesando store during the sales launch of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Apple stores attracted long lines of shoppers for the debut of the latest iPhones, indicating healthy demand for the bigger-screen smartphones.
(Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The new iPhone 6s Plus are display in a Softbank store at the high-end shopping district of Ginza in Tokyo, Japan, on Sept. 25, 2015. Apple sold its new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus in Japan.
(David MAREUIL/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California on September 9, 2015. Apple unveiled its iPad Pro, saying the large-screen tablet has the power and capabilities to replace a laptop computer.
(Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Apple Inc. iPhone 6s smartphones stand next to packaging boxes in an arranged photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. The latest models, following last year's hugely popular design overhaul that added bigger screens, may not match the success of previous releases, according to analysts.
(Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An iPhone 6S Plus is seen at the Apple retail store in Palo Alto, California September 25, 2015.
The new Apple iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are displayed during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, September 9, 2015.
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(REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo)
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(Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
An iPhone 7 is displayed in a store in London, Britain October 4, 2016.
Apple's new iPhone 7 smartphones sit on a shelf at an Apple store in Beijing, China, September 16, 2016.
Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Apple Inc, discusses the camera on the iPhone7 during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, U.S. September 7, 2016.
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