Phoning It In: Why Stu’s Hanging Up on AT&T

Posted May 23, 2003 at 2:29pm

It’s been more than five years since I invoked the columnist’s right of personal privilege to write about a matter tangential to — but not entirely divorced from — politics. Memorial Day seems like as good a time as any to do so again. [IMGCAP(1)]

Corporations are a lot like politicians. You can tell a lot about them by the way they treat their constituents, er, customers. That’s especially true when they are in an ultracompetitive environment, whether it’s Nevada’s 3rd district or the long-distance telephone business. But AT&T is treating me like a Democrat in Wyoming.

My “problem” with AT&T began innocently enough in late April. Actually, I thought the company was being efficient when I received a call one evening telling me about unusual activity on my calling card, and alerting me to possible fraud.

I terminated the card and was told by an AT&T employee that all I had to do was call AT&T customer service to have the unauthorized charges removed from my account. As it turned out, that was about as easy as getting Gary Condit to give a public lecture on the Capitol Hill social scene.

When the bill came — and I saw more than $200 in unauthorized calls — I called AT&T to request the credit. The woman I spoke with, Isabel in customer services, took the information and said that she’d call back shortly with my new balance, after she subtracted the dozens of charges that were not mine.

My dealings with Isabel weren’t flawless, however, since my bill and her computer screen didn’t match precisely. I asked to speak to a supervisor. She resisted. I asked again. She still resisted. I was confused. Heck, I asked for a supervisor, not for Jim Traficant’s private phone number in the Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution.

You might guess that Isabel never got back to me. I was concerned, but I had no reason to believe those folks at AT&T, with whom I had a lifetime business relationship, were ducking me. As it turns out, I’d have had a better chance of getting Ron Paul to vote for a tax increase than I would of speaking to a supervisor at AT&T.

I called AT&T again on May 16 to find out what had happened. This time I talked with Christopher, an AT&T customer “service” representative who was more annoying than a campaign committee press secretary on Xanax.

I told my story to Christopher, even adding that I might be able to help the company with the name of the perpetrator. That’s when a bell apparently went off in his head and he told me that made the dispute a “domestic matter.”

A domestic matter? I’ve never met the person who charged the calls, don’t know the people he called and am not related to any of them. How is that a domestic matter? Would the culprit have to be Osama bin Laden or Jacques Chirac before AT&T would consider it something other than domestic?

Mind you, Christopher indicated that AT&T would erase the charges if I had absolutely no idea who made the calls, but since I might be able to help the company’s fraud unit find the guilty party, I’m on the hook for the cash.

“It’s just like a credit card. You’re responsible for the charges,” said Christopher confidently, apparently ignorant of the fact that credit card holders generally have little or no liability for unauthorized and fraudulent use of those cards.

But what really stuck in my craw was Christopher’s response when I asked to speak to a supervisor.

Like the now-lost Isabel, he refused to transfer me to a supervisor. He insisted that everyone at the service center was authorized to handle all complaints, and he wouldn’t correct my account. (Hold on! Hadn’t good old Isabel promised to give me a credit? Isabel, where are you? Are you in hiding with Dick Cheney? Call me!!!)

After I made additional requests to talk to a higher up (and was turned back three or four more times), Christopher said that he’d have somebody call me. Sure. Who? Uday Hussein? (Would it surprise you to learn I still have not heard from a supervisor?)

By the end of my conversation, I was more confused than I normally am after reading ABC’s The Note.

My conclusion: AT&T was giving me the run-around. It didn’t matter to them that I have paid my bill on time regularly, that I have been their customer for more than 30 years, that I have multiple accounts, that I’m a stockholder or that I didn’t make the calls. They say I’m stuck for calls I didn’t make or authorize.

Apparently, they’re even willing to lose my business over it. Who’s giving them strategic advice, Felix Grucci?

So, like a voter spurned, I’m ready to dump AT&T. And I’m looking for a new face who might want my vote (business). Verizon? MCI? Sprint? Take me. I’m yours. Just be gentle.