Sunday, September 4, 2011


Song Title: "Ring Ring"
Artist: Kotai
Search Term: "AT&T" [This song is the B-side of Kotai's AT&T 12"]

Here's a song, it's a housey Detroit techno thing that goes on for almost 13 years minutes, hope you like tooth-ticklingly tinny 808 high-hats because those comprise its primary attribute. I really don't care about the song today because the search term was just an excuse to write a post in which I try to convince the entire world to never do business with AT&T by sharing my story as a cautionary example. (What follows will not be a Eugene Mirman-esque volley of hilarity. It's just going to be a couple pages' worth of me badmouthing AT&T because they are in the process of trying to extort $210 from me, and it will likely be as dull to you, the reader, as Kotai's tepid electronica will be to you, the listener.)

My wife's dad and her sister spent last winter in Florida, and my wife and I decided that a good Christmas present for them would be to get some sort of reasonably priced Internet service hooked up in their Cedar Key abode. Unfortunately, the only company offering high-speed Internet service in that area is AT&T, who provide as much value to the world of consumer telecommunications as a dustpan full of cigarette beetles would provide to an Ivy League department of entomology. Nonetheless, we were able to sign up for relatively cheap month-to-month service, and since we knew we'd only need to deal with them for four months, we tolerated their ineptitude. I didn't even bother correcting the way they misspelled my name on the account. In early May, my father- and sister-in-law moved back to Maine, so I canceled the AT&T Internet service. We received our final bill on May 26, which noted that not only were we all paid up but we actually had a $6.07 credit. I was so happy to have one less company to worry about cluttering up my life that I didn't even think to check whether that $6.07 could be applied toward one of those AT&T throw blankets from their eShoppe.

On July 23, however, I received a note from AT&T stating, “We recently sent you a final bill for your former telephone service. Our records indicate that $210.00 is past due and payment has not yet been received.” This was both balderdash and poppycock--"baldycock," as I call it, to the chagrin of my elders--because not only do I have in my possession the aforementioned final bill confirming a $6.07 credit, but I have never in my life received telephone service from AT&T.

So I called AT&T's customer service line to get this straightened out. For those who have never had the thrill of calling AT&T's customer service line, imagine a dartboard that features no bull's-eye; just a Cubist collection of inconsistently-sized shapes labeled with point values ranging from minus 20 to [poorly-placed UPC symbol]. The dartboard also spins, and as it does so, it emits a harsh creaking sound and the smell of burning plastic. AT&T's customer service department is the idiot who would not only invent this dartboard, but would hang it on the back of a door so that if you enter the room at the wrong moment, you will take a fatal dart to your jugular. When I attempted to call the customer service line, twice the number was busy and twice the line simply hung up on me after I had been on hold for 20 minutes. When I finally reached Jamie in accounts, he told me that I needed to speak with the cancellation department, and helpfully transferred my call to the voicemail box of the after-hours emergency department. (This was about 1:00 PM on a weekday.) At one point their hold music was Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," which I grudgingly admired, because it really is the ideal song to convey the message "Yes, we are fucking with you!" to irate clients.

I finally managed to reach a woman in the retention department who told me that the $210 represented an early termination fee that was applied to my account in error. To be more precise, it represented two $105 early termination fees, as this erroneous charge had been applied to my account twice. Again, I have never contracted AT&T's services as a phone provider, so this charge could potentially be valid only if their billing practices are based wholly on Minority Report-style precognition, in which case I terminated my telephone service with AT&T so preposterously early that I managed to do so before I ever even considered signing up for the service, let alone ordering or receiving it. Of course, while I would not put it past AT&T to attempt to levy punitive charges against individuals for not purchasing their services, I am fairly certain that such fees would not withstand a legal challenge for the time being. (I have a hunch that AT&T's lobbyists could successfully purchase a majority in both houses of Congress to enable them to essentially collect a tax on all citizens who are not active AT&T subscribers, but thankfully when such a law is passed, it will not apply ex post facto to the $210 bill that they spun out of asshole cloth for me.) Anyway, after some wheedling, the woman in retention told me that she had expunged the charges from my account and she pledged to send me written confirmation that I now had zero outstanding balance with AT&T. Such written communication was never sent. Obviously.

It should be noted at this point that the fact that I was able to reach a human being at all is evidently a small miracle among AT&T customers: When I related this story on Facebook, my friend and colleague Mike DeFabio commented ruefully, "Sounds like you got lucky. In my experience, AT&T's support line leads directly to a phone in an empty room with no doors."

Anyway, I continued leading my virtuous life of extreme couponing and consensual BDSM, content in the knowledge that this unpleasantness was behind me, until August 19, when I received a notice from a collection agency called FAMS (Financial Asset Management Systems) stating, “Your delinquent AT&T account has been placed with Financial Asset Management Systems, Inc.” Yes, AT&T still wanted my $210 and had resorted to the use of hired goons to get it. FAMS does not appear to have an active website, but I can tell you their director of operations is named Kevin Inches, who I hope possesses the grace to have thanked his parents for blessing him with a name that can so easily be converted into a surefire pick-up line that it would take an AT&T employee to bungle the attempt.

So it was time for another journey into AT&T's twisty, turny customer service colon. Twice, upon barking, "Agent! Agent! Agent!" at the automated triage system like Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading, I was transferred to a busy signal. Eventually I reached Monica in the billing department, who told me I needed to speak to the retention department at 866-666-1675. At that number, I spoke with a fellow named Mike, who told me he could not help me because I had called their Missouri department, whose staff cannot access my account. He then inexplicably transferred me to the web sales center. I called back and another woman gave me a different number to try. This, too, led to the web sales center. I called the retention department number once more and a different Mike told me that I hadn't been calling the retention department at all. He gave me yet another number to dial, why not. Upon doing so, I reached Shauna, who also told me that she was in AT&T's Midwest division and so could not assist with my Florida-based account. After promising to transfer me to the correct department, she transferred me to a busy signal.

At that point I decided to handle things through the mail. Where we stand at the time of this writing is that I have sent notices of dispute to AT&T and Mr. Inches via registered mail (delivery of both was confirmed on August 22), accompanied by documentation of the experiences described above as well as a list of demands including that AT&T call FAMS off and that they provide me with written proof that they have contacted all three credit bureaus to make clear that this charge was erroneous and should not affect my credit report. I have also opened a formal complaint about AT&T with the Better Business Bureau. I will update this post with further details as this saga proceeds. If any reader has had similarly enjoyable dealings with AT&T and their Bonanza of Quality, I would love for you to describe them with all appropriate venom in the comments section!

Update 9/18/11: A few days ago, I received a call from someone named Mary in AT&T's executive escalation offices, I think she said, to discuss the letter I'd written. After she asked me a few questions, she claimed that FAMS has been told not to pursue the $210 further, my account has been wiped clean, the credit bureaus have been notified of AT&T's error, and she would be sending me written confirmation of all this. I asked for an additional $150 to compensate me for the time, cell phone minutes, and other materials I wasted fighting this mistake, and she said, "Unfortunately, we do not compensate people for their time," but did agree to send me a $50 "courtesy credit"--in the form of a check, not AT&T store credit or anything. I accepted, happy to get even that much. I will continue to remain dubious until I actually receive the check and written confirmation, but it hasn't stopped me from making plans for the $50. At first, I was toying with the idea of spending the money on books about the evils of telecommunications deregulation, which I would donate to my local library. But ultimately I've decided that, given AT&T's history of donating piles of money to conservative politicians like Rick Perry, it would be far more satisfying to spend their money purchasing CDs for the library by rabidly left-wing artists like Phil Ochs, the Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, and Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Yesterday I was speaking with my mother-in-law, and she told me that the heating oil company for which she works signed up for a cell phone plan with AT&T, covering the field workers in their rural Maine service area. Naturally, it was quickly discovered that the company's workers may as well have been carrying around cell phone-shaped candy dispensers for all the good AT&T's coverage was doing them. Upon calling AT&T's support line, a representative took a look at their coverage map, which I expect looks a lot like a half-teaspoon of paprika tossed onto a lifesize map of the United States, and confirmed that AT&T did not actually provide coverage in the area this company needed it, and so agreed to terminate the contract without levying an early termination fee. You can guess what they received in the mail a few weeks later. My mother-in-law said it took the company's intern about eight hours on the phone with AT&T to get this sorted out.

So, dear reader, if you are thinking of signing up with AT&T for any service whatsoever, please bear in mind that odds are fairly good that you will not only receive substandard service, but you may be issued charges that you are specifically told you would not be issued, and it will require at least a full workday's worth of time on the phone--for which you will not be properly compensated--to correct their error. As far as I'm concerned, it's borderline criminal that they're able to get away with this time and again, so all I can do is urge you to seek another service provider if there is one available to you.

Update 10/8/11: Nearly a month has passed since I last heard from AT&T and I still have not received the $50 check or the written confirmation of the actions they claim to have taken. (The Better Business Bureau did forward me AT&T's written response to the BBB regarding my case. Their note details the conversation I'd had with Mary and AT&T's promises to rectify things. It contains the sentence, "Mr. Williams was satisfied." I once again grudgingly admire their chutzpah there.) So I called Mary on Thursday and left a cranky voicemail in which I slowly repeated my case number and phone number a few times, just to get under her skin childishly. She called me back Friday and said that she would immediately contact accounts receivable to get the check and final invoice out to me. I asked whether that would be accompanied by her written confirmation that the collection agency has been told to back off and the credit bureaus had been contacted, and Mary told me, "I don't recall saying I would write a letter," as though that were the most absurd imposition that had ever been requested of her. I suppose it's not a big deal because I was going to call the credit bureaus myself anyway, but I remember harping on this specific demand quite a bit in our earlier conversation. I'm beginning to wonder whether all AT&T employees are bashed in the hippocampus with a tow ball as part of orientation.

Update 1/22/12: I suppose I should mention at this point that I did indeed receive the check from AT&T, after a while, and I did spend it on left-wing albums for the library. Phew.


  1. Oh dear God. That is such bullshit.

    I'm sure you've already thought of this, but after all the dust has cleared and they claim that you're in the clear, pull your credit report just to be sure. The last time I got mine, I found something on there that was so incredibly wrong that I had steam coming out my ears (it's a long story but I'll tell it if you're interested) but since this happened shortly before I left the country I just said fuck it and left it alone.

    Actually, you may want to consider emigration. It would probably be easier than getting your credit cleared at this point.

  2. Sure, I'd love to hear the story about your credit report. I am always interested in hearing about things like this--particularly from someone like you, who can tell stories that make sense, without resorting to the sort of stream-of-consciousness histrionics that you see at The Ripoff Report site.

    Emigration is more and more tantalizing with each passing day, but Bev won't consider leaving Maine. What would be best for me would be if Canada would annex the Bangor area. Maybe you and Sean could pull some strings with the New Brunswick government?

  3. Well, S's dad knows Frank McKenna, who as you know used to be the premier of New Brunswick, so that may actually be possible. I'll get back to you on that.

    And the credit report story. Oh, dear. It all started at the beginning of 2005, when I got horrendously ill and needed antibiotics. I was between jobs at the time (I think it was right before I started at GNC) and of course didn't have insurance. So I went to the local doc-in-a-box, paid them $50 (which I had to borrow from my mom, because I was that broke) and applied for aid from the state to cover the visit. Luckily I qualified, and from then on everything was taken care of in a timely and competent manner.

    HA HA, did I fool you? Actually, months later I started getting calls from the doctor's office saying I owed them some ridiculous amount of money, a few hundred dollars I think. Luckily I still had the paperwork that showed the state was going to cover it, so after many hours on the phone with many people, I thought it had been straightened out.

    Until the summer of 2006, when I requested my credit report so I could see exactly how awful my credit score was before I moved out of the country. It was pretty awful, but I'd expected that. What I didn't expect was the fact that the doctor's office had sent me to collections for the unpaid balance of that visit THAT THE STATE HAD PAID FOR.

    I am so happy that I discovered this right before I moved away so I didn't have to deal with it.

  4. Well, if Frank McKenna can't manage to get the whole of Penobscot County scooched into Canada, perhaps he could just take the single acre around my house?

    Wait--I'm not sure I want to stop at customs six times a day. Hm. Well, I'm sure ol' Frank can figure out the logistics!

    Ugh, I'm so sorry you had to deal with that crap. That sounds tremendously frustrating. I am so, so sick of this kind of thing, where some brainless rodeo clown somewhere can push the wrong button and instantly make our lives worse. (Though I'm very happy that you got the last laugh by moving to Canada! Ha!)

  5. Maybe you should just do like Peter Griffin and create your own country around your house. Willonia!