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Is it Big Tobacco? Nope: AT&T

As I strolled through the airport this morning, the story of Esther Strogen, a widow who rented rotary dial phones from AT&T for 42 years, was blaring from television screens.  At $29.10 per month, the family calculates AT&T has collected over $14,000 in rent. 

Now managed by Lucent, estimates are that there are as many as 750,000 customers still on rental programs. At $29 per month, that would be a cool $250 million in revenues annually.  

When questioned, spokesman John Skalko would only offer “We will continue to lease sets as long as there is demand for them,” and “bills are clearly marked, and customers can quit their lease any time by returning their phones.”  Skalko also disputes the $14,000 claim, stating that the widow in question has been paying $29.10 per quarter, not per month.  Since 1985, he claims the total bill has been about $2,000. 

In any case, Strogen’s daughters terminated the arrangement, whereupon Lucent demanded the return of the phones. 

It’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it?

After getting no satisfaction from AT&T, Strogen’s daughters went public:

“We want to bring it to people’s attention,” Melissa Howell said. “Maybe they’ll look into their bills … Maybe this will make AT&T look into it and stop sitting in an office collecting money.”

From a public relations perspective, this is a disaster.  It’s a classic example of a “big tobacco company” defense.  (1) Dispute the facts, followed by (2) point out that there were prominently displayed warning labels on the product, then (3) disclaim all responsibility, and (4) pin the blame on the consumer. The problem is that in a world where meme’s spread virally via blogs and the internet, this won’t work anymore.

AT&T could have turned this into a win for Esther Strogen, and kept the story out of the papers very simply.  They should have:

  1. Apologized.
  2. Given her the telephones.
  3. Offered some number of months of unlimited calling in compensation. 

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Aswath September 19, 2006, 10:24 am

    Indeed, they should have terminated the rental program long time back when the RBOCs were arguing that they should not be forced to support pulse dialing. This way they would have discouraged people from asking for pulse dialing and then by default they would have acheived their other goal as well.

  • Jim Courtney September 20, 2006, 7:49 pm

    OK, so I guess it's time to give Bell Canada their due then. When I reviewed a bill a two or three years ago I enquired about terminating the rent on a Nortel 2-line touchtone phone. They not only terminated the "lease", but also gave me the phone and refunded a couple of months' rent. I still use the set with my VoIPvoice Skype setup to act as both my Skype & Bell phone when I am at the home office. And the call display shows Skype names (as 'S-skypename') when there are incoming Skype calls!

  • BoldOldPhones March 20, 2007, 9:45 am

    As a Christmas gift, my company sent Mrs. Strogen a Black Rotary Dial phone to make up for the ones that she had returned to the phone company. Until this article came out I had no idea how many people were still leasing their phones although I knew that it did still occur and that the phone companies ask for their phones back when the payments stop coming in.

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