Beware phone bills that charge you twice


Published: Monday, January 16, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 10:49 p.m.
Need a reminder to scrutinize all charges on your bills in the new year? Try this telling tele-tale: After switching her long-distance calls to an Internet (VOIP) service recently, Jenifer Boadwine cut back her Verizon unlimited nationwide calling plan to a cheaper Verizon regional plan to save a few bucks.
But when the Olney, Md., home-mortgage consultant got her first Verizon bill after the switch, she was stumped. "It was actually higher than when I had all my long-distance calls included," Boadwine said.
Boadwine uses Verizon's automatic-payment plan and gets her monthly bill online. So it's a synopsis of the actual bill, which is difficult to scour line by line for errors. So she shrugged and figured it might have been one of those confusing "overlap bills" that prorate charges when you've changed calling plans or phone carriers. But her next Verizon bill again seemed too high - again, by about $40 - so she asked her fiance, Mark Stevenson, to investigate.
"He's a little more forthright than I am," the laid-back Boadwine said. "If there is a discrepancy, even a few dollars, Mark'll find it."
Digging into the details, Stevenson, a mechanical engineer, did a double take at what looked to him like a double charge. Verizon was billing his sweetie for the local plan, for the new regional plan and also for a la carte services that are included in the regional plan. Sorry, wrong numbers!
He called Verizon to complain. "The customer service representative said that they knew they've been having an issue with their system double-billing," Stevenson said. "When I asked if they were taking any steps to remedy this by notifying their customers ... or refunding money, they simply said 'no,' that most people call when they notice that they're being overcharged."
Verizon refunded Boadwine's overcharges, but Stevenson was troubled by the company's apparent laissez-faire attitude of overlooking erroneous charges unless customers notice and complain. "These days people are so busy.... I'm sure there are a large number of customers who wouldn't realize they're being ripped off month after month by their phone company," he said.
When the Consummate Consumer asked Verizon about the overcharge, Harry Mitchell, director of Verizon's Mid-Atlantic Bureau, investigated and found that "a system problem" had indeed caused incorrect billing - and not just on Boadwine's bill. "About 150 other customers," specifically in the mid-Atlantic area, were affected, said Mitchell, adding that, overall, there are 4 million Verizon customers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
While he dared not say it and risk anyone thinking that Verizon doesn't care about those 150 customers, the implication of course is that 150 out of 4 million is a drop in the bucket. Which is true - unless you're the drop.
Mitchell said Verizon isn't ignoring overcharged customers. "Our employee who spoke with the customer unfortunately misspoke and gave the customer erroneous information about our company policy on billing," he said, explaining that Verizon reviews its billing system to try to make sure bills are accurate. "We have identified and corrected the error, and we identified and are properly adjusting the affected customers' accounts."
But the telephone industry is notorious for unfathomable bills and billing glitches. A recent and rather significant example came last month, when Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett announced that AT&T would pay $550,000 in refunds and credits to settle charges that it had erroneously billed 49,000 consumers $3.95 a month over three months.
Last year, when the Federal Communications Commission reviewed rulemaking in Truth-in-Billing consumer protection regulations, the nation's state attorneys general told the FCC that based on the consumer complaints they receive, there is "significant consumer confusion related to misleading practices in billing for telecommunications services" and that, over the past five years, telecommunications-related complaints ranked "in the top four of all consumer complaints."
No surprise to Tom Allibone, who never gives the telephone industry a ringing endorsement. "These systemic, chronic-type billing problems, they exist all over the place," said the director of auditing at TeleTruth, a New Jersey telecommunications watchdog group, and former member of the FCC's consumer advisory committee.
Allibone said typical billing discrepancies include jacked-up Federal Universal Service Fund surcharges (he calls this a phone company "slush fund"), double-dipping on taxes and "overcharging or overbilling." Verizon and other telecommunications companies typically fall back on the "honest billing glitch" excuse when caught doing it, he says. "There was a systemic error ... it's funny how they come back and say that."
James Hood, chief executive of Consumeraffairs.com, a consumer-advocacy organization, has little patience for companies that nickel-and-dime consumers with erroneous or stealth charges. "This is exactly the tactic that is used by low-life scam artists - you put a small charge on a customer's credit card or phone bill each month in hopes that the consumer won't notice," he said. "Those who are exceptionally alert can usually get the charges removed, but most consumers never notice. For a company of Verizon's stature to remain quiet about a billing error is disgraceful."
Mitchell said errors occur "... and, when that happens, we work with affected customers to make the bill right." He recommends that customers review all of their bills for accuracy. "If they have a question or see a discrepancy, they should contact us. We will be happy to work with them to answer those questions and ensure their bill is accurate."
But Stevenson wonders what might have happened if he hadn't caught the error: "I just don't like to see big businesses take an apathetic approach to taking care of their customers," he said. "I wouldn't want my family or friends to be bilked because they simply didn't pay attention to the detailed breakdown of their bill."

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