Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.
This installment of the column will be published in two parts. Mostly that’s because Nelson wrote too many words this month.
Listen: I’m fully aware that a healthy, employed man in a functioning industrialized democracy kvetching about his phone service is basically the canonical First World Problem.
In my defense, this is illustrative kvetching; c’mon, it’ll be fun!
I have AT&T for my home phone and high-speed Internet service. In September last year this service took a nose dive; suddenly my Internet connection would suffer hours-long periods of dropping, negotiating, reconnecting, then dropping again – a process that I could readily monitor, since my phone line was now so lousy with modem whistles that I could hear little else (although callers could hear me with crystal clarity, which made me sound somewhat prematurely demented as I hollered for them to speak up over all the damn noise).
Despite my better judgment I delved into the AT&T Customer Service  voicemail system. The first human I spoke with … well, I wasn’t precisely sure it was human. On the one hand, the oddly mechanical voice did guide me through a complex tango of unplugging, replugging, reporting the status of various blinkenlights, powering things down, powering them back up, hooking them to my computer, going to specific IP addresses, reading what the screen says, unplugging the first thing again, plugging it back in, putting the modem on my head, taking off my shirt, looking in the mirror, taking a picture of myself, shaving my chest, taking another picture, texting both pictures long-distance to some number with a +234 country code – basically standard AT&T Customer Service stuff, except for those last few items, which I clearly just made up.
But the cadence of this voice was an odd, off-kilter lilt, and either our connection was terrible or the rep was enrolled in some nation’s witness relocation program, because the voice sounded insanely autotuned.
After we finished the power-button-and-ethernet-cable hokey pokey – all of which, incidentally, I’d already done on my own before calling AT&T – the Nameless Being with the Robotic Larynx established it could not help me and transferred my call.
I’d been on the phone for around 45 minutes by this stage.
After just a few dozen minutes in limbo my call was picked up by “Sherise in Atlanta.” This connection sounded much clearer, and I did not doubt that Sherise was a human female, nor that she was indeed in Atlanta. Sherise asked for all of the information that I’d already given the Offshore Robot – information I’d given the voicemail system itself to begin with – and then started guiding me through the same ethernet-and-power-cable dance.
I explained that I’d already done this dance. Sherise tried several things “at our end” (what this could mean perplexes me) to no avail. We discussed what was possibly at issue: (1) There was a problem with the DSL modem, which I would have to pay to replace; (2) There was a problem with my home wiring, which I would have to pay to repair; or (3) There was something amiss between their hardware and my house, which they would handle at their expense.
We set an appointment for an AT&T line worker to come to my house the next week; he’d check their equipment from the multiplexer to my house. Provided he never entered the house, this would cost me nothing. She asked for a number where I could be reached, and I was careful to give her my cell phone number, because my home phone wasn’t really functional, which is why I’d called Customer Service to begin with.
I never got that call – and never really noticed, because as I was walking home from my son’s school bus stop on the morning of our telephone appointment, my Lovely Pregnant Wife called from work, and I spent the remainder of the day at University of Michigan hospital .
When I finally got home there was a hang-tag on my doorknob indicating that the line worker had come, called the phone number he was there to fix, no one had picked up (duh), no one had answered the door, he’d checked their equipment, found nothing wrong, and left. Nonetheless, our DSL and phone service was nominally better-ish, so I called it good enough and considered the matter an annoying wash.
When I received my bill for that period in November, I was surprised to find a $60 charge for a service call. I again embarked on a journey into AT&T’s fascinatingly dysfunctional phone system. While on hold and shuffling my papers, I realized something interesting: This charge wasn’t even for my September service call; the date of service for this charge was in the second week of October, another occasion on which I hadn’t been home (and, dammit, had at least a dozen witnesses to confirm it). As there was no evidence of forced entry at my house – and no improvement in my spotty Internet connection – I was given to assume that AT&T representatives had not entered the premises to render services.
Voicemail eventually spat me out on “Donna’s” desk. Donna asked for all of the information I’d already given the voicemail system , and agreed that this charge was illegitimate, explaining that my “case had been inadvertently escalated by the system.” She agreed that AT&T would “be more than happy to remove that charge” and transferred me to “Michelle.”
I gave Michelle my name and phone number and contact information and confirmed the last four digits of my wife’s SSN – which I was now doing for the third time in the course of the same phone call. Things went downhill. Michelle could not find my bill in her system – which they were “upgrading.” I suggested they call the Offshore Robot or Sherise or Donna, all of whom had no problem finding my bill.
Michelle was quiet. I pointed out that the charge was totally illegitimate – I hadn’t even been home to let a worker in – and that Donna had already said the charge would be removed; I wasn’t even sure why I was on the phone at this stage, wasting my own billable hours helping them troubleshoot their software and customer service systems free of charge. Michelle found my bill in the system and, apparently, wrangled a manager who was walking past. They had some sort of confab sotto voce. She indicated that she’d issued a refund.
At this stage I was a little lathered – I’d already wasted half an hour on this call alone; I had my own work to do. I asked Michelle to whom I should issue my invoice, fully expecting her to balk so that I could go on a rant about how I worked freelance, and it wasn’t like I was sitting in a cubicle somewhere wasting company time: The time I spend politely asking AT&T to stop picking my pocket is time I can’t bill out; it’s food off my table, heat from my house, and hours that need to be made up that night to keep on top of projects.
But I didn’t get a chance to do any of that, because Michelle quietly told me to include my invoice in the envelope with my next payment. So I did.
Christmas Comes Early
In December, I was a little let down that AT&T hadn’t paid my invoice. I was also infuriated to find that I was still being charged $60 for a service call that never happened – and which AT&T readily admitted was, at best, a strange fever-dream of their mid-upgrade computer system – plus a $7.57 late fee. Two days before Christmas, first thing in the morning, I called AT&T again, entered the voicemail, came out unscathed, where I spoke with “Sherika.”
Sherika leveled with me: She understood my frustration, but if I wanted to talk to anyone who could actually do anything, there was a two hour wait. Without screaming at all, I pointed out that was absolutely insane. She suggested that she could take my name and number (how is it that the phone company never has my number?), and that a manager would “return your call before 2 p.m. today.” Twelve hours later I hadn’t heard from AT&T and was about to leave town for a dozen days. I didn’t want the damn bill hanging over my head, so I paid the legitimate portion, and enclosed my invoice (again) and a letter explaining why my check was made out for less than their suggested payment.
Thirteen days later, Sherika still hadn’t called back. I was concerned that we’d parted ways on bad terms, and that AT&T – or it’s quixotic, uncontrollable, unpredictable computer system – was subsequently going to treat me as a delinquent account and send thick-necked line men to bust down my door and wreck up my credit rating. 
So I called AT&T voicemail again, this time choosing “Fraud” from the voicemail menu, more or less on a lark. The hold music was insanely over-amplified, rendering the ‘80s soundtrack guitar power-ballad muzak a clipped, fuzzy, heaving wash of modulated noise that, more than anything, sounded like waves crashing on a distant beach as heard through a 13-foot-long cardboard tube. After just a couple minutes on hold I was talking to “Tanisha,” who validated my frustration, apologized, and made a “realtime adjustment” to my account.
She then gave me her user-identification number (“TR4213”) so that I could later confirm this, if I so wished. She empathized with my frustration again, and apologized for AT&T. This took a total of twelve minutes. The charge was gone when my January statement arrived, although my invoice remains unpaid.
First and foremost, I am by no means unique: Over the course of the full fiscal quarter I spent kvetching about AT&T’s billing insanity, whoever I was chatting with in the normal course of my life would invariably have a nearly identical anecdote of either a mysterious, fraudulent charge originating from AT&T, or of a promotional price “not sticking to an account.” A quick Google search uncovered at least three years of these anecdotes from strangers.
My research here is by no means rigorous – or even vaguely statistically meaningful – but my guestimate is that the average customer spent no less than one solid working-hour straightening out these “unfortunate errors.” Oddly, although customers who’ve found themselves randomly dinged for $30 to $120 abound, I’ve had trouble locating any AT&T customers who’ve mysteriously received a $60 credit on their account. What an oddly consistent software glitch.
Second – and I offer this because it seems likely some of you are wrangling with AT&T right now – when you are calling about a billing problem, choose “Fraud” from the voicemail. As near as I can tell, Tanisha TR4213 at Fraud can execute magic fu that is beyond the reach of any member of the management team in any other sector of the company. She may, in fact, be the cyborg imbued with the deathless spirit of Alexander Graham Bell, condemned to wander the copper and fiber lo these many years. I don’t know.
What I do know is this: If there is a single human-like entity in the entire AT&T corporate hierarchy who I would not invite to fight a tank of sharks drunk on methylenedioxypyrovalerone and cough syrup, it is Tanisha TR4213. I’m not joking right now: The gratitude I feel toward Tanisha TR4213 for being so magnanimous as to stop trying to rob me is actually embarrassing.
Third: Although the billing practice used by AT&T seems obviously fraudulent – AT&T operators admitted as much from the start – my legal counsel  indicates that it’s hard to determine when this behavior actually rises to the level of actionable mail fraud. For this to qualify as mail fraud, one would need to be able to demonstrate either (1) that these baseless, hard-to-resolve charges are intentionally being applied to customer accounts, or (2) that these “billing errors” (which invariably seem to favor the billing party) could be easily remedied, but are instead ignored. Shy of government intervention, guys like us just ain’t ever gonna be able to suss any of that out.
Tune in next week, when we’ll explore what AT&T is really stealing, why we were basically OK with that for so long, and how the occult hand of the Free Market can’t really do much to fix this.
 Note my restraint in not waxing megasnarky about the irony of that department’s name.
 Don’t worry: Wife wasn’t in labor, and both she and our Potential Human were just fine; the ultimate diagnosis was “shrug You’re pregnant; how should we know what’s up in that joint?”
 Why does the phone company need to ask me my phone number at every step? Can they not afford the caller ID service they sell? That’s sad, somehow; the cobbler’s children go barefoot.
 This might sound silly, but two years back I was unable to refinance my home – in which we had actual equity at the time, and on which we’ve never missed a payment – because a decade ago a hospital in metro Detroit inadvertently passed me to a collection agency when I failed to pay a $50 bill that they’d never sent me. This dropped my FICO score just low enough that, today, the only thing Bank of America is willing to offer me is a swift kick in the nuts (which they happily administer on the first of each month).
 Who, yes, is both non-practicing and a blood relative; I’m not dropping another $250 to chase this rabbit around the track, folks.
About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.
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