Davida vs. Goliath
January 21, 2009 3:24 PM   Subscribe

How to screw AT&T without being screwed

I've got AT&T long distance. Each month, they've made the same simple mistake on my bill, which increases my bill from $40 to $200, roughly.* I spend an hour on the phone with them arguing this, and I always win, because I'm right. They never give me a credit for the hassle that I have to go through every single month, and instead tell me to be grateful that they're giving me a credit. Never mind that I was incorrectly overbilled in the first place.

Because this takes me an hour each month, the cost of the service (to me) is considerably higher than $40. Indeed, this month I spent almost four hours on the phone with them, making it much much higher. I'm a lawyer, so I know my billable hour cost. I should really just pay the damn bill regardless of what it is -- I'd come out ahead. That said, there is NO WAY I am going to pay them because it's wrong that they charge me incorrectly. They're just not going to take my money that way.

I realize that this means that they're taking my time, which is actually more limited than my money. But dammit, the principle matters to me. That's why I'm a lawyer in the first place. It really matters to me that they're trying (and I am sure succeeding, for thousands of people worth millions of dollars) to scam money from people through billing errors. So I fight them.

I know that, in addition to the monthly credit they give me, they're losing a lot more whenever I call and tie up their customer service people. The question is, what can I do that will hurt them even more, so that they'll actually fix the problem and I don't have to call them each month? Begging doesn't do it. Switching to another carrier won't do it either. (I've already switched from Verizon for even worse shenanigans -- they didn't even correct the billing error once it was pointed out to them.) I can't use VOIP because my electricity goes out too often.

Ignoring all the other "don't use AT&T" suggestions, what can I do to really make them hurt enough that they'll just give me the service I want and bill me appropriately?

*You probably don't care what the monthly problem is, but on the off chance you do, it's that I've signed up for a fixed calling plan, but at the end of the month they always cancel it, and put me on a per-minute plan. Every freaking month. They claim that they're getting electronic messages from my local carrier telling them to do this. Aside from the fact that this is illegal, my local carrier says, Nope, no such messages have been sent. I can't get the two companies to talk to each other and sort this out. Whatever. I don't believe either side, frankly.
posted by Capri to Work & Money (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could Executive Email Carpet Bomb them.
posted by zsazsa at 3:35 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I filed a complaint against AT&T with the Better Business Bureau and later received a call from someone in their President's office or something. They failed to correct the issue I had, but maybe it would work for you. AT&T sucks.
posted by exogenous at 3:37 PM on January 21, 2009

Can you ask them to put a password on your account so that it cannot be changed without your authorization?
posted by MegoSteve at 3:43 PM on January 21, 2009

File a class-action suit.
posted by zippy at 4:19 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Almost the exact same thing has happened to me (I have had AT&T's unlimited long-distance plan -- it's had various names over the years, I think it's All Distance now -- for almost as long as I've had phone service, but every once in awhile they used to "accidentally" switch me over to regular billing). They always acknowledged that they were in the wrong, but seemed stumped as to how to permanently correct it. The only thing that finally worked was to keep escalating upward to supervisors and supervisors-of-supervisors and calmly but assertively explaining the situation and expressing my anger and frustration, and threatening to cancel my service. They finally got it straightened out and I haven't had any "surprises" for several months now (fingers crossed that I haven't jinxed myself by mentioning it).

And yes, AT&T basically sucks, but so do all the other carriers available in my area. I hope they can finally straighten out your problem too. Good luck!
posted by amyms at 4:26 PM on January 21, 2009

Talk to your state Public Utilities Commission. That's what they're for.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:33 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

You cannot win this battle, because you cannot hurt the people who are truly responsible for wasting your time. This is a combination of systemic incompetence - which is actually a core founding principle of the current version of the company (promote the worst elements of every new company aquired, fire anyone who knows how to keep things running) - and profound indifference. "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company." Still true, after all these years. Given that you value your time highly, I'd say the best revenge you can hope for is to not waste any more of your time on them than you have to. Or, mail partial payments of a dollar and change at a time every day all month to waste their processing cycles.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:41 PM on January 21, 2009

(By "tou cannot win this battle," I don't mean "You cannot solve this problem." I mean, "You cannot really get revenge.")
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:43 PM on January 21, 2009

Seems to me a call to your local tv station's "troubleshooter" or "consumer advocate" might be just the ticket.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:00 PM on January 21, 2009

Can you pay an assistant to make these calls on your behalf? Won't punish AT&T, but at least what you'd be spending is less than your billable rate.

You could be preemptive about it too. Have an assistant call them up every week or every day, and say I've had this problem every month. i want to make sure I don't have it this month. I'm still on the billing plan I think I am right?

That would probably take less time than trying to fix it after an invoice has been generated.
posted by willnot at 5:05 PM on January 21, 2009

Uncertain about your present contractual obligations to ATT, but could you cancel your current account and simultaneously open a new, unrelated account with ATT? (e.g., using a variation of the name/address you presently list) This may trick ATT's vast bureau-cloud into ceasing its monthly harassment.

Also -- and because you're a lawyer, you may have already taken this step -- have you obtained a letter from your local carrier emphatically stating it is not requesting you be switched to a per-minute plan?

These are the two steps I would take if I absolutely had to remain with ATT, and was being repetitively pummeled by its obtuse bureaucracy.

And yes, as Chocolate Pickle suggested, alert the Public Utilities Commission about the problem. It helped me resolve a one-year battle with Verizon regarding an overcharge.
posted by terranova at 5:07 PM on January 21, 2009

Every state has an attorney general's office, and a state consumer affairs office. Enlist their assistance.

Run ads on craigslist looking for other people who have the same experience. In a class action suit, the lawyers win, because they get to charge lots of fees. Consumers occasionally get tossed a bone, but at least it would feel like justice.

Once in a while, I read a story about somebody who bills a company for their time, and wins. You have a contract with them. Find it. Read it. Does it have anything in there about what they will provide you? All contracts are expected to be reasonable, so you may be able to challenge them on not meeting the terms of their contract, and that violation might have value. IANAL.

Cell phone companies seem to be regulated by the FCC. You can try complaining to them.

Cell phone companies are just plain rapacious, lying, cheating, vile scum. I had a nice cell phone company that just got swallowed by Verizon, so I'm pretty sure I'm about to be screwed.
posted by theora55 at 5:08 PM on January 21, 2009

Response by poster: Great answers all. Thanks so much for the whole variety of options. I think I'll try them all :)
posted by Capri at 5:29 PM on January 21, 2009

I don't know your state, but most states have a public utilities commission. Every time this happens, document it and send a copy to the PUC, and a copy to both your local phone company and AT&T. If you've got a pro-active PUC (and some of them are), they'll likely get involved. If not, at least when the local telco petitions them for the next favor (rate hike, increased area, etc.), this will be in the pile of documents the PUC will beat them over the head with.
posted by nonliteral at 5:31 PM on January 21, 2009

Go tell Consumerist? They're owned by Consumer Reports now.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 5:31 PM on January 21, 2009

Start sending monthly invoices for your time to their accounts payable department.
posted by lunaazul at 6:03 PM on January 21, 2009

1) Every time you have this call, ask to speak directly with and complain to the person's supervisor. Each time, make sure you're speaking with someone one rung higher than the person you complained to last month. Always record these calls. Follow up with written complaints. Archive them and the replies. Always be polite and firm and entice the person to lie through their teeth about how much AT&T cares about you, the customer. Ideally generating a certain measure of nonsensical corporatespeak jargon.

2) Start a blog with embedded audio clips.

3) Get linked to by Instapundit (or, since you're a lawyer, The Volokh Conspiracy, or perhaps some other popular blog.

4) ???

5) profit!
posted by K.P. at 6:11 PM on January 21, 2009

1. Call up the day before, the day of and the day after the period-end and check the account status.
2 Get your telco to put a block (they have a fancy name for it) on the account (to prevent all account changes without a unblock code).
3. Write a letter of complaint on your lawyerish letterhead.
posted by Xhris at 7:46 PM on January 21, 2009

This is called slamming^ or more specifically cramming. It is not simply a nuisance, it is illegal. Someone is violating the law. Now, it may be a third party sales contractor, but it is still illegal. AT&T is supposed to have procedures in place to prevent changes. Ask them to institute a "cramming block" -- you may need to speak to a supervisor. If you get any static, point out that you are aware of the consumer protections under the law and will follow up with the FCC.

I'm sure they are already happy, as you seem to note, to reverse any unauthorized charges because they know of the substantial penalties.
posted by dhartung at 8:53 PM on January 21, 2009

I have a very similar problem with AT&T - they constantly screw up my billing, albeit in different ways every few months. I spend on average 3 hours a month on the phone with them, they are very happy to "fix" the problem, but then miraculously it never really gets fixed. Currently I have a $200+ credit in their system that's been pending for a month and I'm STILL getting charges on my bill for service I never ordered and don't use. They've told me not to pay the part I don't owe, but since the credit is pending they now show my account as past due.

I take comfort in the fact that since I'm self-employed, they can't get rid of me by leaving me on hold. It is very disturbing though to find out this is a standard policy and not just my bad luck.
posted by shopefowler at 9:03 PM on January 21, 2009

I got very quick and effective customer service from AT&T with the following:

1. Do a Google search for the phone number of the corporate headquarters.
2. Call that number.
3. Tell the receptionist who answers that you are an extremely dissatisfied customer who has been terribly treated by your customer service, and that you are going to cancel your service if you are not immediately transferred to someone who can rectify your problem.

...I did that and within less than a minute I was transferred to someone in their "executive appeals" department, who a) gave me his full name and direct phone number, b) sorted out part of my problem within two minutes, and c) continued to work on my problem and even authorized a credit back.

Give it a shot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:06 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't threaten a class action on the phone, they'll probably drop you immediately or transfer you to legal where you can't help yourself.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:49 AM on January 22, 2009

Is this a consumer/residence bill or a business bill?

These are the Slamming Resolution Center numbers for each:
Business 800 538-5345
Residence 800 741-1393

If that doesn't solve it, the Executive Complaint number for consumer bills is 800-355-9542.

Who is your local carrier?
posted by soelo at 11:30 AM on January 22, 2009

Response by poster: Well, MeFi has come to the rescue. A MeFi member who works for AT&T kindly contacted me and put me in touch with someone in their Executive Complaints department. (This is essentially what EmpressCallipygos recommended, but I didn't have to find any phone numbers. He called me.)

The person who called was sincere and understanding and apologetic. He said he doesn't know how to fix the problem, but he was going to work on it and keep in touch with me. With luck, this will actually be resolved, but I won't know for sure until mid-February when the next bill arrives.

What still puzzles me (and all of us, I am sure) is why competence is so hard to come by in the first place. Not only competence, but compassion and a willingness to take the next step to resolve someone's problem. Not one of the people I spoke to at the main number was sympathetic. Only one transfered me to a supervisor willingly; all the others were rude about it. One threatened to increase my bill if I kept protesting that I was being billed too much.

Why are front-line workers allowed to be such a bad face for the company? A company with good front-line workers earns long-term customers -- think of the Applemaniacs born of interactions with the folks in Apple's retail stores, or Nordstroms shoppers. Is it so hard to train people to be a good face for the company? It seems like such an economic boon to a company to just have good front-line policies. (Anyone at the airlines reading this? I'm talkin' to YOU!)

Anyway, thanks for all these great suggestions. Hopefully this thread will help others with similar problems, regardless of which large anonymous corporation has screwed them.
posted by Capri at 1:35 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why are front-line workers allowed to be such a bad face for the company?

Essays could, and have, been written about the abysmal service provided by script-based call-centers and poorly designed voicemail systems. Suffice to say that it is universally recognized as so, but it saves money to do it that way. Or at least is universally believed that it does.

Good luck.
posted by dhartung at 4:46 PM on January 22, 2009

Wholeheartedly 2nding Dhartung. I happen to see the FCC slamming orders, and believe me they get nailed to the wall financially when an incident is taken through the FCC all the way.
posted by cowbellemoo at 2:08 PM on January 23, 2009

How did this work out in the end?
posted by bigmusic at 4:05 AM on November 21, 2009

Response by poster: The supervisor who called me solved the problem, gave me a decent credit for my troubles (two months of free service), apologized, explained the technical problems that caused the problem, and even called me a month later to let me know he'd checked on my account to verify that the fix he'd put in place was sticking. It was. I haven't had a problem since then, and if I hadn't had that huge problem (and such rude responses) in the first place, I'd be a fan of the company. However, they were so bad, and so rude, for so long, that I'm not a fan.

As I've said, I am a fan of Apple, Tivo, Nordstrom, Hoover, Virgin, and Amazon, because each of these places has competent and polite front line workers. I call, they listen, they find a solution, and they're nice. Even if they don't find a solution right away (or even ever) their kindness wins my business. (Although when I can I shop locally, and of course it's there that you get the best personal service.) (I'm writing all this for the benefit of people who make these decisions. I completely deny that it saves a company money to pay people to be rude and drive customers away. Bullshit.)
posted by Capri at 9:43 PM on November 23, 2009

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