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Consumers Bite
    “Corporations can still be held accountable, it just requires some really pissed off consumers.”


It turns out that we still have some rights as consumers, it’s just that it requires an insane amount of work to exercise them. Below is a copy of a letter I sent to to the Washington State Attorney General, Christine, Gregoire, about how badly AT&T had screwed me with illegitimate fees. I also sent copies to each of the CEO and VP’s at AT&T, AT&T Wireless, and the FCC as well as to the Better Business Journal.

Surprisingly, a couple weeks later a *very* irate sounding middle manager called me back to inform me that they were delighted to refund me my $225.95 in overcharge fees. You could almost hear him gritting his teeth over the phone, but still – I had won (if by winning you mean I’d recovered from being robbed.)

Cellular Phone Service Providers have the worst reputation for customer service in the USA. They’re regarded as less trustworthy than used car salesmen. And their number one expense as an industry is churn, which is when customers leave their service for another provider. One would think that such large organizations would be capable of the cognitive leap required to connect these two things, but apperantly that’s not so, and they continue to assign minor fees and strange charges to our bills in increasinly obtuse ways, hoping we won’t notice.

Which isn’t to say you can’t win – you just have to be a little… fanatical. 🙂

June 20th, 2002
AT&T Wireless
P.O. Box 78224
Phoenix AZ 85062-8224
John Zeglis, CEO AT&T Wireless, Michael G. Keith, President, AT&T Wireless TeleCorp General Christine O. Gregoire, Washington State Attorney: emailago@atg.wa.gov, Kathleen Q. Abernathy, FCC Commissioner: kabernat@fcc.gov, Michael K. Powell, FCC Chairman: mpowell@fcc.gov, Michael J. Copps, FCC Commissioner: mcopps@fcc.gov, Kevin J. Martin, FCC Commissioner: kjmweb@fcc.gov,

Dear AT&T Wireless:

I am writing to express my disgust with your customer service, your misrepresentation of billing practices, and your disregard for your clientele. While, up until two months ago, your services led me to feel that you have your customer’s interests at heart, these last few months have given me serious reason to conclude that I cannot use you as my cellular phone service provider. Further, as a wireless services professional (see www.www.josh.is for information on my work) I must now in good conscious recommend against subscribing to your services to both my clients and my peers. From everything I can gather, you have established a “racket” designed to prey on your customers.

On May 6th I waited on hold for 1 hour and 16 minutes to speak to a service representative. After giving up I sent an email requesting that my plan be changed from the AT&T DIGITAL ADVANTAGE-$29.99 250 minute plan to the AT&T DIGITAL ADVANTAGE-$39.99 400 minute plan, retroactively for the April pay period. Shortly after I called again and was put through to Kristi at extension number 14159. At that time I had brought up my online account information and had calculated that I had used over my 250 daytime minutes by 50 minutes or so. However, I was able to calculate with Kristi’s help that the total overtime (“air”) charges was over the cost of upgrading my plan to the AT&T DIGITAL ADVANTAGE-$39.99 400 minute plan and still under the 400 minute limit of daytime minutes by enough to allow me between 50 and 100 minutes to use prior to the close of my billing cycle on the 7th of May.

Given this I asked that she upgrade my plan, pleased that I would not have to pay any over time “air charges” for the April 8 – May 7 pay period and would be well prepared to use my phone in an increased capacity during May and beyond.

However, when I received my bill for this period I was told that I owed $182.80 in “Home Airtime Charges”, or overtime charges. My first conclusion was that there was a billing error, and I called to clarify this matter. I was told that Kristi couldn’t have known how many minutes I had used, and that there was nothing I could do but pay the overtime charges and/or upgrade my plan for future pay periods.

I was outraged. I had taken on myself the responsibility of upgrading my plan to cover the use of my phone over my plan’s limits, and was told that all charges were thus covered. This was done in accordance with the information that was presented to me when I acquired service with AT&T a year of so ago. Then I receive a bill that indicating that I had massive overtime charges due. Upon inquiring, I was further informed that there was no recourse to the payment plan changes made under advisement from and with the assistance of AT&T Wireless staff. It is one thing for me to misunderstand my billing – it is quite another to be falsely advised by your agents that a rate increase change they recommend will cover all expensed – AND BE INFORMED RETROSPECTIVELY that this was a misrepresentation.

At this point I found myself having to swallow an additional $182.80 in charges I had spent half a day trying to prevent, charges which I was told would be rendered nonexistent by an upgrade of my minutes plan. I wrote a letter to your billing department detailing my concerns over this chain of events and cc’d it to John Zeglis, CEO AT&T Wireless. I have yet to hear back from either.

But it gets better. On June 5th, 2002, I checked my online account information and discovered that it did not include information on the May-June billing period. I.e., I could no longer determine what my minute usage was for that period, and thereby could not change my plan to cover those minutes. So I called your customer service, and, after a short wait, was connected with Tanya, employee #4033. Tanya told me that my particular plan (the Digital Advantage plan) doesn’t show current billing information for this cycle because AT&T leases lines for this plan from other carriers. She then told me I would have to wait until the end of the billing cycle (in this case the 8th) to find out what my bill would be, and could change the plan for that cycle then. Note that this means I can’t see my bill until the cycle is over! This means that a primary reason I had subscribed to your service – i.e., being able to change my plan according to my usage patterns – is now substantially less convenient and requires that I retroactively change my calling plan at the END of the each billing cycle to reflect my usage patterns. It also means I will have to request new bills for my records, as I can only assume you send the bills out at the end of the billing cycle on a regular schedule, and not according to when I send in my check. In any case, Tanya’s suggestion sounded like the best option available to me, so I asked to confirm. Let me quote that conversation:

Josh: “So I can call on the 8th of June and retroactively change my plan for the previous billing cycle?”
Tanya: “Yes.”

Since I have had trouble with AT&T Wireless in the past, I then immediately called back and got Arthur, Employee #1813, and asked him to confirm the same thing. Arthur was exceptionally rude and seemed offended that I would suggest he should even respond to my inquiry. He said there was no way to retroactively change my billing plan after the close of the billing cycle, and that he couldn’t believe anyone would tell me that I could. Further, he said there was a limit of one “rerate” per year per client, and that’s not something they’ll typically tell us they do. He suggested I increase my plan to the to $69.99 Digital Advantage plan – this increases my minutes to include 800 daytime minutes with unlimited nights and weekends. If I exceed my minutes with this plan I get charged $0.25 per minute. He offered to do this for me “special”, inferring that if I did not go with his recommendation I would not get a second chance to change my plan.

Arthur was offensive, rude, and arrogant, and he disputed every service I had signed on to AT&T Wireless for. I asked to speak to his manager and he told me I couldn’t. When I expressed disbelief that this was impossible he grudgingly admitted that he could “ask a manager to call me back” and told me I would get a call within 2-3 business days. Today is June 20th, eight business days later.

In summary: When I bought the phone I was led to believe I could change my plan at any time and have it affect my then-current billing cycle. I was also told that I would be able to see all my calls listed, to the minute, on my online account, and could use this to choose what plan to apply. Since that time I have been told three different stories about my service, and have had it recommended to me that I change my plan in a variety of ways to either cover the charges or cough up more cash. As per my online account, which now lists my calls and charges AFTER the billing cycle is closed, I now owe $152.77 for this last billing period (May-June). This is $82.78 more than Arthur had recommended I would pay. This is in addition to the $182.80 bill I paid for the April-May period, which is $142.81 more than Kristi had said I would pay. All told, by following your employee’s recommendations I have been charged an additional $225.59 more than I was told I would have to pay.

I have been told I would be contacted by supervisory representatives to discuss this matter and have not been. The letters I sent to your billing department detailing my concerns over this chain of events have been ignored. As a customer, I have been lied to, misled into agreements the terms of which were falsely represented to me, treated as ignorant and disreputable by your customer support, and charged exorbitant amounts in fees which I have gone to great lengths to avoid incurring.

I can only hope this entire unpleasant situation has been some sort of fluke, and that you will soon call me to tell me my $225.95 in overcharge fees are being refunded, the ability to track my minutes online and change my plan accordingly has been reinstated, and that efforts to correct the negative impact your customer services has had on at least this client are underway. Somehow, however, I remain skeptical that this will happen.

I would appreciate a reply as to what you intend to do to prevent other clients from falling prey to this sort of economic treachery. You may send me email at XYZ@ABC.com or mail me at home at 123 Main st #111, Seattle WA 98102. In the meantime, rest assured that I am informing business contacts, friends, and relatives of the need to get out of their contractual obligations with AT&T before you treat them to the same level and type of attention you did me.


Joshua W. Klein