The Gifted Underachiever

My life so far

Battling the Death Star

death-star-smallNot long after the turn of the century I was searching for a new cell phone plan. The offerings were meager in those early frontier days, and the biggest player in the field in the Dallas/Fort Worth area was Cingular, aka AT&T.

Fortunately, our needs were simple: three cell phones for mom, dad, and daughter away at college. What sold this particular plan was that calls between our family phones were free, and that was the only thing I found free in the plan.

In those days each new monthly bill was a surprise because we never knew exactly how many minutes were used by each phone, but the bills roughly averaged $115 to $150.

Then the third month’s bill arrived bearing the greatest surprise of all. I did a triple take at the $400 grand total. Then I did what every dad responsible for paying the mobile bill does: the grand inquisition.

Who did you call? How long did you stay on the line? Do you know how much each minute is? The only answer they didn’t know was the last one, which was 45 cents. The only people they called were each other.

So then I did the second thing a dad does and that was to look at the itemized bill. One would assume perusing the bill would be the first order of business, but those people are not dads.

The statement corroborated their stories. It also showed in black and white that each of those phone calls were charged 45 cents per minute, which is specifically what our “family” plan states it shouldn’t do.

Oh, well this is simple. I found the problem. It’s an error in billing. All I have to do is call customer service and clear things up.

I’m a computer guy. I know that any program dealing with variables has a greater chance of error because of human input.

My task was to explain to customer service that there is a problem between their accounting software and the offered service plans.

Actually, strike that. My task was to get my bill fixed.

Customer service had a shortcut number, something like #2, which I assumed was free, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted.

So when customer service answered that was my first question. I was assured there was no charge for this call. Yeah, like I was assured that all calls between family phones was free, but that’s not how I started out the call.

I was also corporate director of technical customer support for our media company, and I the honey and flies scenario always greased the skids to an amicable solution, whereas assholes certainly got their rails smeared with peanut butter.

After surrendering the account number, my name and saying “you’re welcome” to the thank you for being a valued customer, a thank you that I truly wanted to return after our conversation, I simply explained the problem.

I know these folks are bound to scripts, and that there is an escalation procedure when a task does not fit neatly into this particular customer service ring of hell, so I wasn’t surprised when I was read a litany of possibilities which may or may not pertain to my particular situation. Unsurprisingly, none of them did.

There are many things in life for which I am thankful, such as health for my family and me and free ice cream at the Chinese restaurant, but at this particular moment I was thankful that this call was gratis because I was placed on hold no fewer than four times, each becoming successively longer, until after approximately 45 minutes the familiar voice came back on the phone, “Mr. Thomas?”

I was not aware of when the phenomenon of addressing someone by their title and first name came to be SOP in customer service, but let me state for the record that I do not care for it. But if they feel it establishes a rapport between the afflicted and healer then I will suffer it, as long as Mr. Thomas gets some relief.

I also did not know if she were questioning if I were the same person on the phone as when she last left me in the aural desert or if I had released my tether of hope and hung up.

“Yes,” I replied, to which she sounded relieved. I was notified that it was indeed an error on their part, and that I would receive a credit on my next month’s bill.

Good that they found the error. Bad that I had to pay for it now and have it fixed later. First, I didn’t want to pay for their error, and secondly, if they screwed this up, what’s to say that they suddenly become super conscientious and handle a credit correctly? That was not a chance I was willing to take.

The question now was how much more time am I prepared to fritter away on hold to fix this problem? So, I was quite surprised when my new friend asked me to verify my identity a second time within five minutes: “Mr. Thomas?”

“Still present.” Yes, I could go ahead and pay the regular bill and disregard the erroneous amount. After a few more pleasantries, questions and answers I hung up. The rest of the house was fast asleep, so I went straight to bed myself.

I sat up in bed not five minutes later wondering “What is the regular amount?” I’ve never had a regular amount. Man, this was going to take math.

So I remitted what I figured the normal payment was plus ten bucks as a buffer. Truthfully, I kissed that ten bucks goodbye as I did not figure Cingular’s computers were up to snuff in figuring out overpayment and credit. I reasoned that they considered any overpayment owed to them anyway since we’re only here to take your money whether you owe it or not.

The next month’s bill came with still another surprised. That $300 was still there but this time with attached late fees! So it’s another hour or so with Anti Customer Service. I am always learning things, and not being a man of the business world I am always intrigued by its methods and policies and such. I learned this time that while I can and was supposed to have that amount removed from my bill the late payments cannot be waived.

I will wait here while you are free to reread that last sentence as often as you like. But let me warn you now that it will make no more sense after repeated readings. My record is 11, so if you’d like to try and see if some enlightenment comes after the 11th reading please let me know.

And yes, I did ask how I could be responsible for late fees on a bogus charge on my account. It is one of my most heartfelt desires to provide an answer for you here, but alas I could not understand a thing she said, except that the late fees were a valid charge.

It was another half hour on and of of hold to finally get the bill corrected without late fees. Payment was sent for the “normal” amount.

The next four months were basically repeats of this song and dance, with a few hours of indignant rage thrown in at appropriate times. Each month I was promised they would put a “note” in my account of action taken. Each succesive month the prior month’s note was lost.

The bill now reached $384 and change until finally a glimmer of hope.

I initiated this anti customer service call with the request to speak to someone who could make a decision on my bill without having to put me on hold.

I was told she was the right person. And she was. She immediately saw the problems and all of the lost notes. She then told me that the amount owed was now $133 or thereabouts for last month’s activity.

So where’s the $384? I was told it was removed. It was an error and apologies were in order for my problems. I asked for her name and her supervisor’s name and contact information, because if she did indeed fix this problem once and for all then she should be the next president of AT&T. I wanted to write her supervisor and laud the fixer’s talents.

It saddens me to say I never did send that letter of praise. But take heart because that letter would have been premature.

January 7, 2003. That date was circled on my calendar for a long time. It was a day of celebration – the Coleman family indepence day! That was the day our two-year contract with Cingular expired.

Time for a new plan so off to the big box electronic store to shop.

There were three kiosks in a row representing the big players in DFW now. I had already done my homework, and I knew which non-AT&T plan I would fit us best.

As I was standing in line waiting to be served I heard a “Pssst” next to me. The AT&T kiosk was the only one without a line. Wonder why, I chuckled to myself.

“I can get you a better plan than theirs,” the evil one said to me.

I replied, “No, thanks. I’m just getting out of a Raccoon Plan with Cingular. I’m not wanting to jump back into that trap.”

He looked puzzled, as I hoped he would be. “What’s a Raccoon Plan? I don’t think we have any of those. Are you sure it’s with us?”

“Very sure. Did you know that when a raccoon is caught in a trap it will gnaw off it’s arm to get loose. Today I just gnawed through my arm, and it’s wonderful.”

He couldn’t answer right away. Finally he said, “Well, our customer support is all in the U.S. Theres is all foreign.”

“I wouldn’t care if theirs is the little martian from Bugs Bunny cartoons. I’ll take the chance that they can help me out on the first call.”

I looked away and made my purchase.

“Would you like to keep your number?” my new best friend asked me. “We can just port your numbers over.”

“Port away!” I responded. Three numbers were being taken away from the Death Star, and I couldn’t have been happier.

“Done!” she said. We were told it may take 24 to 72 hours for the port to be effective, but since the request was made today I was no longer a part of AT&T’s evil empire. The Alliance has finally won – cue the Ewoks.

One by one we watched the logo appear on our phones signifying our new carrier. Except for mine, that is – for some reason I had no service.

I called my new customer service number after three days of no cell phone service to ask why. I was told that my number had not been released for some unexplained reason. They appealed to AT&T to release it more than once, but they did not receive a response.

For two weeks I languished in cell limbo with a working phone that could not take or make calls. And lo, after a fortnight, the new logo appeared on my phone. My joy could hardly be contained. I was finally free.

Or so I thought.

Over a month passed before I saw the first sign of trouble in paradise. A bill from Cingular said that I owed for two weeks of service, and the dates were explicit: from the first day I ported my number to the day my new service arrived on my phone. A final call to Cingular anti customer service quickly turned to trouble as my account was no longer active, and they would have to access the archives. I envisioned minor demons hauling the Book of the Dead from the catacombs. Close enough. There was an error; disregard the statement. They should have included the caveat “at your peril.”

This would make a great ending to this story, but alas, our hero is not out of the woods yet.

The first few inkling of trouble began with an innocent phone call from a Dallas area code.

“Dad?” the unfamiliar voice asked when I answered.

“No, sorry. Wrong number,” I replied.

“Oh, sorry, we just got new phones, and I was trying to call my Dad.”

“Again, sorry,” I said and sent them on their merry way to find their father.

A few weeks later another wrong number for someone who just got a new phone. I needed to ask a few questions.

“Where did you get your new phone?” I asked.

“Uh, Cingular,” was the response.

I explained that this was indeed my number and that they needed to contact Cingular to clear things up.

I got a total of six wrong calls, so that’s six times Cingular tried to give away a live number – my number!

Oh, please let this story end here, I know you’re saying. But you know that is not to happen.

The unknown numbers began coming from a new area code. I let voicemail pick them up. I was instructed to “call this number right away.” That is the quickest way to not get me to call the number.

I finally relented after a few weeks. It was a collection agency. I had just moved from Texas to Florida the year before, and I didn’t recall leaving any unpaid debts. So, I naturally assumed it was a fishing expedition for someone with the same surname. I allowed the caller to continue until he mentioned the name that sent chills down my spine.

“Cingular.”

What? Why? How?

It seems that I had an unpaid debt to Cingular/AT&T in the amount of $384 and change. I tried to give an abbreviated version of the above story, and to his credit he allowed me to finish.

Then he told me that AT&T is a big company. They have a lot of money, time and legal representation. I could continue in my valiant attempt to prove my innocence in this matter, but the company would have no problem dragging my name and credit rating through the muck. Oh, and best of luck getting things cleared up when it’s all over.

“So here’s the deal: pay $100.00 right now and this whole thing goes away. It never appears on your credit report and you’ll never hear from Cingular or AT&T again unless you want to.”

I didn’t want to. So Cingular Wireless case #CM20061009_368670 was closed for the amount of $100.00 on October 12, 2006.

On that day I swore that I would do everything in my power to never send a penny to AT&T or any of their divisions. I have remained diligent up to now.

Now I find myself the better part of year into a contract with DirecTV, which I’ve just learned was consumed by AT&T. And I find myself stuck in another Raccoon Contract with an end date circled on my calendar.

This time I will search diligently for any avenue to escape this digital prison. I’m not optimistic, but neither am I beaten.

For now I’ll see how long I can palate the distaste of feeding the beast.

ADDENDUM: I almost forgot! About 10 months after I paid the beast off I received a call. It was from AT&T Engineering. They asked how my service was. I told them it was fantastic after I discontinued my contract and went with another carrier. His response was simply, “well, that explains a lot” and hung up.

I think it explained a whole lot that really needs a lot more explaining, but I’d prefer to never hear from them again.

Categories: What was I thinking?

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