November 26, 2014

Little Details (2/18/10)

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Telephone scammers, slammers and crammers

Feb. 18, 2010

By katherine Bielawa Stamper

One of my less glamorous jobs involved answering a hotline at the Vermont Department of Public Service. From 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., five days a week, I investigated consumer complaints regarding utilities.

Unless you live off the grid, your utility is typically a provider of last resort. You can’t choose who delivers electricity, water or natural gas to your home. My tenure at the department precluded competition in telephone and cable service.

Customer complaints varied. Unresolved issues regarding billing, line extensions – expanding service to new construction – and quality of service were common. 

I remember a transplant from a major metropolitan area screaming into the phone because she couldn’t get cable television at her newly built home, carved into a Vermont mountainside at the end of a dirt road. Farmers, concerned about stray voltage stressing their cows, and a woman fearing electro magnetic fields emanating from the streetlight outside her window were among the folks I spoke with. Many callers faced utility shut-offs due to inability to pay. Negotiating reasonable payment plans consumed much of my time.  Whatever the issue, we were expected to treat each caller respectfully.

State legislators sometimes called on their constituents’ behalf.  One representative implored me to “get this constituent off my back”.

Mike Obuchowski, then Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, was a staunch advocate for folks he represented.  He always asked me to follow-up with his constituent and him. I remember a lovely older woman from Obuchowski’s district who called and said, “Mikey told me to call you.  He said you could help me.”  I helped Charlotte resolve a billing problem.

Mid-level utility staffers I negotiated with seemed like honest folks trying to earn an honest living.  Witnessing scams including “slamming”– unauthorized switching of long distance providers, “cramming”– unauthorized charge additions to bills, and the fall-out of exorbitantly priced 900 numbers, left me a little jaded regarding certain players in the telecommunications industry.

I scrutinize utility bills before paying and question seemingly inappropriate charges. A recent telephone bill precipitated a call to Fairpoint Communications, provider of my landline services.

After dialing the customer service phone number, I ignored invitations to visit their Web site, preferring to talk with a human.  Insisting on human contact, I hope, saves a few jobs that might otherwise be lost to “automation.”

I questioned a $0.75 charge for a supposed three-way call made at 6:05 a.m. on a Monday morning, stating no one in my family made such a call. Fairpoint promptly removed the charges.

Another more mysterious charge appeared for $7.58 from Teleseven LLC. The Fairpoint staffer was unauthorized to remove the charge. She provided me the toll-free number for ILD Teleservices, a third-party biller.

Slipping on my consumer advocate hat, I asked the Fairpointer, “Are you getting many calls about this company?”

“Yes, we’re seeing a lot of complaints about unauthorized charges from them,” she acknowledged.

I called the number for ILD Teleservices and, while on hold, searched the company on the Internet. BINGO. There were numerous references to their scamming behaviors.

An ILD Teleservices employee named “Mark” answered the phone in San Antonio.  I explained I was a former employee of a public utilities commission calling to complain about unauthorized charges on my phone bill.  It was clear Mark was used to such calls.  His response seemed a little too routine, almost scripted, as he agreed to remove the charges. 

I expressed my dismay that his company engaged in dishonest business practices. Seven dollars and fifty-eight cents adds up, especially for a company like ILD that processes approximately 120 million transactions annually. It adds up for customers too busy or too tired to scrutinize paper bills. It adds up for folks with online auto-pay who are less apt to review bills. It adds up for customers for whom English is not their first language and anyone who struggles – young or old – to manage their personal financial affairs.

Seven bucks is not a lot of money for me. Seven bucks times hundreds (or thousands) of customers – obtained in an unjust manner – lines the pockets of someone with a greedy idea.

“Mark” removed the charges but not until I informed him I planned to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission and the Vermont Department of Public Service. I told him I was concerned about all of the other people his company endeavored to charge unfairly.

I filed complaints online with the regulatory agencies and, with thirty valuable minutes lost from my day, started to cook dinner.  My daughter looked up from her homework and said, “Mom, I was rooting for you all the way.” I guess that’s what you call a teachable moment.

 

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

 


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