Friday, July 16, 2010

Long Suffering Spouse opens the cell phone bill

I wasn't in my office when my wife called. And I didn't have my cell phone with me either.

When I got back, though, there was a text message on the cell -- from Younger Daughter -- something along the lines of "so you know, Mom's on the warpath."

Only she didn't write "on the warpath." She used a single, earthier word that means the same thing in America; Britons, however, use that word as a synonym for inebriation. You can probably figure it out from there. I made a mental note to both thank Younger Daughter for the warning and talk to her -- again! -- about finding more appropriate ways to express herself, particularly in writing.

And then the office phone rang.

It was Long Suffering Spouse and she had up a full head of steam. "We have to change phone companies!" she began.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well, I got the mail," she began. "Nothing much, really, except the cell phone bill. I opened that so I could get the due date."

We have a System at the Curmudgeon home for dodging late fees. We calendar the due date for every bill. If our cash flow were both regular and sufficient, we could pay our bills twice a month like they do in the movies. Some bills would be paid a few days early that way, but -- if you have the money -- what's the harm?

As it happens, our own cash flow is seldom regular or sufficient. If the grace period on a charge card is 26 days, our best case scenario is to have something together by Day 25. Or Day 25½. As a business owner, I'd be much happier getting 100% of my bill paid a day late than 10% paid on the due date. But lawyers can't charge interest -- at least I don't know any who do. Credit card companies, though, are thrilled to take 10% -- because they can charge exorbitant interest on the balance. And 100% paid a day late isn't 100% at all: Interest is charged on the whole amount... and there's a "late fee" of $39. Except, sometimes, now that we have post-Great Recession, Obama-inspired credit card reform, the late fee may be as low as $29.


Well, we have this calendar, anyway, and we put all the bills on their due dates. And all we have to do, to avoid being late on any bill, is look at the calendar.

Which I only forget to do sometimes.

This was one of the reasons why Long Suffering Spouse checked the front of the bill to see if last month's payment was reflected. "I saw you paid the bill last month," she told me, "and then I saw that this month's bill was $20 more. And I wondered why."

Our cell phone provider started out life as a Baby Bell, in Texas, as I understand it, but grew to swallow most of the other Baby Bells, including Ameritech here in the Midwest, and eventually grew large enough to swallow Ma Bell herself. For the classically trained, that's a switch on the old myth of Cronus, or Saturn, if you insist -- the god who used to swallow up his children -- until Zeus (Jupiter) managed to avoid getting eaten and consigned Daddy to Tartarus. I never name companies here, exactly, especially big ones that might sue me for portraying them in an unflattering light. So let's just call this company BP&P, because that rhymes, sort of.

Anyway, our BP&P bills are usually 10 or 12 pages long, chock full of fees and charges and taxes on each of the three lines that are still on that account. (Older Daughter, Oldest Son, and Middle Son have all aged out of our home cell phone account. Oddly enough, none of them use BP&P for their mobile phones.) Cryptologists should consider using the BP&P billing format for their most secret codes: All the information is there, in plain sight, but it's entirely unintelligible. No mere mortal could ever hope to decipher it.

We pay one fee for my wife's line, then $10 a month for each of the lines used by Younger Daughter and Youngest Son. We pay a fee for unlimited texting. If the bill is to be believed, Younger Daughter is really stretching the meaning of "unlimited." Supposedly, she had something like 4,500 texts this past month. That averages to 150 a day -- and a little more than six per each hour in a 24 hour day. Assuming there must be times when texting is impossible -- while asleep, presumably, or in the shower -- and other times when texting is decidedly not adviseable -- while driving, for example, or attending church -- the number is truly staggering.

There are times when one can not text, right?

Long Suffering Spouse walked me through the entire bill, phone line by phone line, line by line within each phone line, until we got to the charges ascribed to Youngest Son.

There were charges for a "people finder" service and some sort of data plan. According to the bill, as Long Suffering Spouse interpreted it, Youngest Son was surfing the Internet from his phone, downloading many kilobytes of digital goodies.

There's one problem.

We purposely disabled any Internet access from the kids' phones. So Long Suffering Spouse knew that wasn't right.

After further scrutiny, she found an 800 number for customer service. She called.

Now, as I heard the story, Long Suffering Spouse did not have flames shooting from her eyes at the outset. This was a simple mistake. A computer glitch. Easy to fix, in her mind.

Her good attitude largely prevailed as she punched through menu after menu after menu... after... menu... trying to find a living, breathing human being to whom this problem might be explained.

Eventually, an alleged human being was connected. My wife explained the problem.

"Let me access your account," said the alleged human being.

There was a pause.

"No, there's been no mistake," said the alleged human being. "Your son is using the service. In fact he's already downloaded one item this billing cycle."

Now, the sparks began to fly. But Long Suffering Spouse is a teacher, and not prone to losing her temper immediately. More tersely now, she began to explain, using small words, how all Internet-related services had been disconnected one month after we got the phones. (We had to take the services for a month, my wife reminded me later. But she called on the first day everything could be canceled -- and did so.)

"Well, that may be," said the alleged human being. But, she went on to explain, Youngest Son had supposedly received a text in April or thereabouts offering these people finding and data services free for one month. He had not responded. Anyone not responding is automatically enrolled in the program -- at an a la carte rate. However, BP&P offers a package rate for this service which would effectively reduce the monthly cost and provide unlimited access to these services and would Long Suffering Spouse be interested in this?

I'll pause for a moment here, as you both imagine the sparks emanating from Long Suffering Spouse's eyes changing to geysers of flame and get your mind around the concept of BP&P "enrolling" customers in a program when the customer -- a minor, mind you -- fails to respond to the invitation to join the program.

* * * * * * * * * *

I understand it is fashionable among the Red Meat Republicans to decry our legal system generally and class actions in particular. But if this sort of skullduggery doesn't cry out for class action, what in heck does?

My office cell phone is also with BP&P. For years -- until the kids made me -- I did not have texting on my phone. Nevertheless, I'd get hit every other month or so, with a 10¢ charge here or a 20¢ there for texts I'd never sent. I called once or twice and -- after my own epic journeys through phone menu Hell -- got the charges reversed. After awhile, though, I stopped. I was spending $50 in time to save 20¢. Even a bad businessman like me can figure out that this is not the highest and best use of my time. But phantom 10¢ or 20¢ charges multiplied out over tens of thousands of users, maybe millions? It could add up quickly. And, here again, this is exactly the kind of abuse for which class actions were invented. It's a shame they've been effectively gutted.

And, for that matter, I think BP&P has inserted a mandatory arbitration clause in its customer agreements. Can you see paying AAA rates to challenge a bogus 10¢ charge? Now that I reflect a bit, I think that's when I stopped challenging the bogus text charges. And, of course, eventually I was obliged to buy a text package anyway.

End of interlude.

* * * * * * * * * *

Have you gotten you mind around the concept of how BP&P enrolls kids in monthly plans without the account holder's knowledge or consent yet?

"You enrolled him in this plan because he... did... not... respond?" asked Long Suffering Spouse.

Mind you, I wasn't a witness to this conversation -- thankfully -- but I have seen my wife in flaming-eye mode from time to time. And I can readily see her biting off each word, with impeccable diction and increasing ferocity. Still, she did not lose control. Yet. "My son is here," she said, and for a wonder, he was. And he was even awake! "Please talk to him."

And the alleged human being agreed.

Youngest Son got on the phone and the alleged human being walked him through the steps for accessing the data package. When she got to the screen where he should be on the Internet, the alleged human being asked, "What does the screen say?"

"Access denied," said Youngest Son.

I don't know if Long Suffering Spouse was by Youngest Son's side or listening on the extension during this exchange, but Youngest Son quickly got out of Dodge and Long Suffering Spouse took control of the conversation, "Now do you understand?" she asked.

"I don't know how he's doing it," conceded the alleged human being, "but somehow he is. It says so on my screen. Do you want to cancel this service?"

That pushed Long Suffering Spouse right over the edge.

"Cancel the service?" she asked. "Cancel the service? No! Cancel all the lines. Close my account!"

I really don't know how Long Suffering Spouse was talked back from this, especially by the alleged human being. But, as Long Suffering Spouse explained it to me, BP&P agreed to cancel all the data charges on this bill -- and on the preceding bill that I'd paid without protest. And they'd knock the alleged data use off the next bill, too, though it will probably appear anyway when the bill comes in next month. She'd saved us about $50 and Long Suffering Spouse was pretty pleased with the way she'd handled it.

I was pretty pleased, too, especially in that she hadn't burned down the house with the jets of fire erupting from her eyes. And in that she didn't sound too angry with me for failing to catch the unrequested "service" on the last bill.

"And I'm looking at the cell phone bills from now on," Long Suffering Spouse told me. "And whenever we're out of contract, we are getting a new phone provider."

"OK," I said -- although I wonder if any of them are really any better.


Dave said...

They aren't but it will make you feel better to trade one uncaring mega company for another. For a day or so.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

d#1 likes verizon pretty good but i have been with bpp for almost 17 years with the same cell number and i have the iphone which requires you be with those buggers. this stinks curmy, really stinks. i think lss handled it beautifully.

smiles, bee