Thursday, June 25, 2009

Interlude: AT&T

OK, for a break from religion and literature, let's talk about AT&T. LAst summer, our family bought our cell phones and new"wireless plan" (sounds like we send telegrams) from At&T. We bought insurance with our "plan," so that our phones would be replaced for $50 each if something happened to them.

The mechanism that hangs up our daughter's phone broke (not an uncommon problem apparently), so after much back and forth, a nice AT&T employee decided the phone was in fact malfunctioning and worthy of replacement. We sent it back, minus the battery. The company sent us a new "case." We put in the battery. It worked. All was well.

Oh. Until we got our old case back with a letter from AT&T saying that $245.00 was being added to our bill because the phone suffered from "Cracked, Damaged, Smashed, Chewed Plastics/Faceplates." A little sticky red arrow on the phone pointed us to a slightly scuffed and worn area in the upper right corner of the phone. It looked to me like the normal wear and tear that would happen to a phone used incessantly by a text-messaging teenager.

OK. I thought, OK, I have to call AT&T as I can not see how any reasonable person, jury, judge, whatever, would say that the little bit of wear on the phone added up to (capital D) "Damaged."

I am, at this particular moment, entirely unemployed in paid work, so I figured I had plenty of time to devote to this aspect of the family finances. I spent some time on hold and then in supplying information to verify my identity. I spoke with the first customer service representative. I quickly realized that she had no option but to quote the company line, to the effect that once AT&T had determined a charge and added it to the bill, it could not be contested because I had "agreed to the terms." Them's fighting words, I thought. In what universe can At&T simply "decide" to add a charge and then "decide" it's irrevocable? Not in my universe. So whilst I chatted with the customer service rep, I googled consumer protections for Ohio.

Thee customer service rep soon bounced me upstairs to a person with more "authority." (I did have to wait on hold for almost 10 minutes, but I was warned of this ahead of time and they did apologize profusely for it.) My new contact, Keith Reynolds, listened, apologized again and refunded the extra $195.00 in charges.

This transaction, for which I had allocated a day, took perhaps a half hour. I was pleased about that. But what was obvious to me was that At&T (and they are not alone) simply charges whatever it can to whomever it can, and hopes that some of it sticks. I'm sure there are plenty of weary, worried people out there who just pay the bill rather than arguing. What concerns me is my suspicion that these policies disproportionately hurt the under-educated and/or emotionally overwhelmed segments of the culture. I navigated this situation fairly rapidly because I'm a journalist--I know "a little bit" about how to get through to the person with authority and how not to take no for an answer. Also, I'm educated--I can be both concise and articulate on the phone when need be. I have some idea of my rights. But what of people who either don't have these skills or really can't take any more pressure in their lives? Is it just "tough luck" if they can't fend for themselves?

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