My phone rang on the ski hill this morning. It was AT&T's collection agency, BCR, calling to harass me again.
You see, AT&T picked my pocket to the tune of $1170, and then claimed that I owed them an additional $700. My mistake? Trusting them with my credit card information. Like many people, I've granted AT&T the privilege of drawing money from my credit card, once a month, to pay my bill. Plus, when I set up the account (since I was from out of country) they demanded a $200 deposit from me, which they would refund at the end of 12 months if all my bills were paid on time. Allowing them to debit my credit card was the best way to ensure I got that money back. Besides, it's more convenient. In fact, I have my bank automatically pay my Visa bill as well, to avoid interest charges.
February 28, 2007 my assistant telephoned AT&T to cancel the subscription for two wireless air cards that I had. They were $65/month each, and we didn't need them anymore. He encountered the telephone company win-back machine, who told him that it would cost $300 in cancellation fees. So he came to talk to me about it. And in the rush of running a start-up, the follow-up call to AT&T to confirm cancellation was never made.
And that's how AT&T ended up taking $130/month from my credit card for nine months.
A little earlier, my paper bills had stopped coming. I suspect it was an update to their computer system, as suddenly it was impossible to put a Canadian address into the AT&T billing system. AT&T suggested I sign up for email billing, but I couldn't even get an eBill emailed to me, because it required me to enter a US 5 digit zip code to sign up for the service.
How did I miss the fact that they were taking money from me?
No paper bill. Automatic payment by credit card. Automatic payment of the credit card bill by the bank. And me, I nearly never look at the credit card bill. My wife sometimes checks it over, and there was nothing out of the ordinary from her viewpoint. AT&T had been billing us for a full 12 months, and since those accounts were for business purposes, she ignored them.
I finally found out in February of this year when AT&T's hounds — BCR — started calling me. You see, my credit card had been stolen in October. I had to cancel and get a new number. Suddenly AT&T could no longer take that $130/month from me. But they had no way to contact me, since they had incorrectly my address into their computer and had no email address. Wait a minute! They could have telephoned, right? After all, they are the telephone company. Well, they did call using an automated system that left a message with an 800 number in my inbox. But for very good reasons (like the fact that the FBI and the RCMP recommend you don't call those systems back) I didn't call back.
The first call I got from a human being was from a collection agency.
So I called AT&T back to talk with them about it. The service rep I spoke with on the telephone could see that we had talked about cancellation with them in February, and could see that the data cards hadn't been used since them. But since the account was "bad debt", he couldn't do anything about it except take down the facts and submit a case to the finance department, which he did. I asked them to cancel the $700 debt that BCR was pursuing, and to refund the $1170 I had overpaid. It was clear that I believed the accounts had been cancelled. AT&T refused. They defended their position by saying "we continued to send you bills every month which you paid. You must have wanted the service". They conveniently ignored the fact that there was zero usage, and that they hadn't communicated anything to me in over a year.
The collection agency continued to call me — at home, at my office, and on my cellular phone. And they didn't just harass me, they harassed Janice as well. When she refused to give them information they tried telling her about the size of the bill, and tried pressure tactics to get her to give them information. Blatantly illegal, privacy busting tactics, but they used them anyway.
I finally settled up with them on Friday after an AT&T service rep told me he could reduce the outstanding bill by $400 — the limit that his supervisor could authorize without finance department approval. So I paid another $300 to get the collection agency off my case.
And the worst part about it? BCR continues to call me daily because, as the AT&T rep told me, "it can take up to a week for our finance department to communicate that payment has been received."
While I'm often critical of Rogers here in Canada, the identical situation occurred with a wireless Internet package I had bought from them. When I called them back to talk with them about the situation, it was resolved in 10 minutes and I got my money back. Rogers did the right thing.
Shame on you AT&T. Shame on you for stealing $1170 from my credit card, and then extorting another $300 from me by sending a false bill to collections. Shame on you for not having the common decency to pick up the phone, call me and discuss it. And you know, I've spent nearly $6,000 with you over the last two years. Shame on you for ruining my holiday with daily reminders of how much you value your customers.