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How AT&T picked my pocket.

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. 

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Alec March 11, 2008, 12:59 pm

    Yup. As soon as I can find a decent prepaid data plan in the US, I'll dump the rest of my AT&T cellular accounts.

  • Jason Yeung March 11, 2008, 2:27 pm

    If you get the time, I'm sure sending an email to the CEO of AT&T would help. I've referred a few others to this contact and they had good degrees of success in getting money back.

    Randall Stephenson, AT&T CEO
    rs2982@att.com (direct)
    randall.stephenson@att.com
    phone: 210-351-5401 (direct to his secretary)
    fax 210-351-3553
    alternate phone: 210-821-4105 (headquarters, press 3, ask for Mr. Stephenson's office)

    You could also try their executive solutions group 877-574-8832 or 1-888-289-8116, option 4.

    – Jason

  • Paulo March 11, 2008, 4:05 pm

    Wow, that really is terrible. When I first moved back to Canada from the US I had a hell of a time dealing with some US companies that couldn’t handle non US-addresses (but would tell me over the phone that it was perfectly fine for me to do business with them). Problems ranged from not being able to update billing addresses (either online or via the phone), issues receiving mail, 1-800 numbers not working from Canada and there not being a long distance alternative I could call, to them not accepting any non-US address bank cheques (even is USD) for me to pay final bills with. Fun. For sure, there are some issues with Canadian utilities (eg, wireless service), but generally I’ve found customer support to be better, especially internationally.

  • stevex March 11, 2008, 5:30 pm

    I concur about Rogers getting it right – this was actually one of the few times Rogers has impressed me as a customer. They contacted me about a cell phone that I believed was cancelled – I think what happened is I'd switched to a different Rogers phone and assumed they had cancelled the old one, but they had not – and when I talked to their rep, they offered to refund me for over a year's worth of time. I didn't even have to ask.

    Really this should be an easy decision for them. If a customer paid for a service but didn't get use it at all, and claims they didn't know they were paying for it, then give them their money back. You're much more likely to get their business in the future, and really, what has it cost you? Does AT&T need the money badly enough that it's worth all this loss of goodwill?

  • Jason Yeung March 11, 2008, 6:02 pm

    >

    Actually, SBC bought AT&T and just took on their name…the old AT&T no longer exists. BellSouth was also swallowed up by the "new" AT&T and thus prompted the name change to AT&T Mobility from Cingular Wireless.

    – Jason

  • Michael Graves March 11, 2008, 8:50 pm

    This is so typical of AT&T, and has been the case for many years. Long ago (1996) when I lived in Toronto and my then girlfriend lived in Houston she was being pursued for what they said was a bad debt over long distance charges. It was their account error.

    A bill paid using cheque-by-phone (a strange US thing) was taken down with some account number transposed and the credit given to another persons account. It took over 4 months to sort it out, all the while we received threatening collection calls. Their collections were run in-house back then.

    We vowed never to spend another dollar with AT&T. And we haven’t. When AT&T bought SBC, who is our only available provider of land lines, we event went 100% VOIP just to stay clear of AT&T.

  • Alec March 12, 2008, 11:03 am

    thanks for the suggestions Jason. I just dashed off a note to Mr. Stephenson.

  • Brad Templeton March 12, 2008, 8:50 pm

    I had an even more slimy problem like this with Qwest long distance. I had them as LD provider, and had their plan that gave cheap calls to Canada. Then, in spite of the fact I made lots of calls to Canada, they insist I called in to switch my plan to their default plan which was 33 to 60 cents/minute for calls to Canada. But I also had automatic billing and didn't notice it. Until quite some time later, and it amounted to $600 — spread out over many months.

    I never got them to admit or refund anything, but I had my revenge. If you do a Google search for http://www.google.com/search?q=qwest+long+distanc… you will find the 2nd hit, after the Qwest web site, is my account about the whole thing and my opinions of this business unit's billing dept. And others reported getting the same treatment.

    Over the years, I suspect thousands of customers have read my story, and I presume a fair number may have altered their views of Qwest and cost the company business. That they would choose this path is stupid.

  • Jessica March 18, 2008, 1:16 pm

    So, did the note to Mr. Stephenson work? I have a VERY SIMILAR situation with AT&T right now over $6,000! I would rather sue them and give the money to an attorney than give it to them for services I didn’t want or receive!

  • Alec March 19, 2008, 2:26 am

    Hi Jessica,

    Sears contacted me about 24 hours after the initial mail. At this point, they’re reconsidering a refund, and have promised me an answer shortly. My advice? Write your letter to Mr. Stephenson. There’s apparently an “office of the president” group that handles nothing but complaints sent directly to Stephenson.

  • iamone August 12, 2008, 12:11 pm

    I have an advertisement with at&t and sent them a money order to pay for the monthly fee and they keep calling me and sending me letters hounding me for payment. I’ve called them and told them they received my payment already and cashed the money order. I had to pay to get the money order traced. I even sent them a copy of the money order that was sent to me from Amscot, and they still say they never got it.

  • em January 23, 2009, 8:32 pm

    ok i skipped through the end part, but from what i read it seemed that it didnt get cancelled because your assistant wanted to talk to you about it first, so thats not their fault. right?

  • Alec January 23, 2009, 9:02 pm

    not at all. the win-back department and egregious cancellation fees are an abuse of the consumer. AT&T admitted as much when they refunded me the whole amount a few weeks later.
    http://saunderslog.com/2008/04/25/quest-for-refun

  • DR, PRISCILLA REED October 26, 2011, 12:04 pm

    Wow ! I AM SORRY THEY TOOK YOU FOR THAT AMOUNT. I JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH ATT&T FRANLIN COLLECTION , THEY CLAIM I OWE THE $116 BUT IN REALITY THEY TOOK MY MONEY OFF MY CREDIT CARD AND SENT THEIR REPAIR GUY TO THE WRONG ADDRESS. I FINALLY GO THEIR REPAIR GUY OUT HERE BUT HE SAID HE COULD NOT DO THE SERVICE NOR LEAVE MY INTERNET EQUIPMENT BECAUSE I LIVE ON A STREET AND HIS REPAIR ORDER HAVE MY ADDRESS AS PLACE. NOW IAM BEING HARASSED BY BILL COLLECTORS AND I CANNOT GET THOUGH ATT&T RECORDINGS TO FIX THIS. WHAT IF ANYTHING CAN I DO ?

  • John Paulson April 28, 2012, 5:55 am

    The money-back guarantee was a major tool of early U.S. mail order sales pioneers in the United States such as Richard Sears and Powel Crosley Jr. to win the confidence of consumers.

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