Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Irrational bureaucracy

I can’t stop AT&T from sending me bills for $0 that cost them $0.90 to mail to me. And I’m not even an AT&T customer.

Here is how this happened. Before the days of cell phones (AKA mobile phones), we needed to use calling cards to make long distance phone calls. We had an AT&T card, as well as a Sprint card, but once AT&T gave us a cheap plan call the “Military Plan,” we only used the AT&T card, and the Sprint card expired.

Then we got a small SIM card (a computer chip) that we put in our Hong Kong phone, and voila, we could use our cell phones in the US. It is a “Pay As You Go plan” that does not have monthly charges; you just pay for each call at $0.10 per minute. It used to be Cingular, but not that is, coincidentally, part of AT&T. So, for about two years, from 2004-2006, we did not use the AT&T calling card.

Then, I once needed to use the calling card to call the US from Europe, and I discovered the card did not work. I tried to call AT&T to find out what the problem was, but got the “helpline” runaround, so gave up in frustration.

Months later, I tried again, and this time I spoke to a person (how thrilling!). I told her my card did not work, and wondered why. When I mentioned that I was not in the military, but that I had been put on the “Military Plan” because it was the best plan for our family (and this was well before 9-11, after which the military became more prominent and were viewed as “heroes” apart from ordinary people like us), she said that I was not eligible for the Military Plan, and that she would terminate my card. I had expected her to suggest some other plan, or some other solution, but no, she just said goodbye and hung up! OK, I figured it was not a big deal, as we really don’t need a calling card anyway.

But the bills kept coming. Every month, I get a bill for the monthly “Military Plan” charge of $1. The line below the charge says “Other charges and credits” and it shows a credit of $1, canceling out the charges. After all the detailed instructions on how to pay, the bill says in bold: “Do Not Pay.”

I went to an AT&T store in Indiana to try to get the bills stopped. The very nice woman behind the desk told me that while I could pay my AT&T bill there, they were not really the same company: they were AT&T Mobile, and my bill was from another company that happened to have the same name of AT&T. I pretended I understood.

Originally, this bill was automatically paid by my credit card (which was in turn automatically paid by my bank). Since I wanted to make sure I was not being charged anything, and would not be charged in the future, I called the credit card company to make sure AT&T does not have the authority to charge me anything anymore. Credit card companies are worried about fraud, so I find that they are a lot more responsive than phone companies. They told me that AT&T has long not been on my list of authorized auto-payers.

So there we are. AT&T still thinks I’m their customer. They send me a monthly bill, at the cost of $0.90 per month, and at the bottom it tells me “Do Not Pay.” Despite numerous attempts to get off their mailing list, they still spend money sending me a useless bill.

Do you think we should sell our AT&T stock?

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