Saturday, February 23, 2008


Last November, my mother overpaid her phone bill with a check for $800. That was sixteen times her normal monthly phone bill. When I discovered this, I started trying to get either a reimbursement or credit on her future phone bills. Over the next three months I talked to numerous AT&T customer service representatives and ended up with a bricolage of conflicting advice about what number to call—how to make such a claim—even whether I could talk AT&T on my mother's behalf. With only one exception, AT&T's representatives seemed to be polite and fair. But AT&T's customer service system is broken.

The problem first appeared on Mom's bank statement. It was identified on the statement as AT&T SERVICES CHECKPAYMT. Mom told me she'd thought the November AT&T bill said she owed all that money. That was highly unlikely, because the October statement showed a balance of $0.00. I promptly called the AT&T Customer Service number. The representative told me that I should call the Electronic Payment Center (EPC). Then I got busy getting Mom moved into Assisted Living. Mistakes like this check were one of the reasons I wanted her in Assisted Living! When I subsequently called the EPC, I was told that no, EPC was not the right number to call since it wasn't a bank draft or online bill pay—it was an actual, physical check.

At that point I thought I better check with Mom's bank. They told me that with checks electronically transmitted to the bank—that's what CHECKPAYMT means—the bank never gets the physical check. A check image will never appear in the bank statement. However, a copy of the bank statement should substantiate the payment and prove to AT&T to prove that the money was paid to them. Great! I called the AT&T Customer Service number again. This time around, the person who took my call listened to my description of the problem, including what the bank had told me; picked up on the fact that my patience was wearing thin; and managed to TRANSFER MY CALL TO MOM'S BANK'S AUTOMATED CALL SYSTEM. In other words, she got rid of me, but in a way that certainly did not bolster my patience.

On my next try a more helpful customer service rep told me that no fax or copy of the bank statement was needed. She said was filling out a claim for the overpayment. The claim would be investigated. She gave me a claim number and said I should follow up on the claim in a couple of weeks. Great ... maybe. At this point I knew better than to believe the problem was being solved just because somebody in AT&T Customer Service said so.

By the way, the backstory on AT&T landline phone service in Georgia, where my mother lives, is that BellSouth was taken over by AT&T. That was after AT&T had been taken over by SBC. The considerations in play in those corporate takeovers must have included big profits and the (formerly) good name of AT&T. Considerations not in play apparently included customer service.

The next time I called AT&T Customer Service I got someone who handed me off to someone else. The second person told me that she could not tell me ANYTHING—not how the claim was coming along, even if I did have a claim number; not how problems of this general sort should be handled; she could tell me NOTHING unless my name was added to the account. Now, every AT&T representative with whom I spoke up to this point had asked for the PIN Number from Mom's bill. One or two of them asked for the last four digits of Mom's Social Security Number. This representative said (a) knowing the PIN Number did not permit me to be given information about this account. (b) Knowing Mom's Social Security number would not help either. (c) My Durable Power of Attorney on Mom's behalf wouldn't do any good. Huh? Durable Power of Attorney is supposed to be for handling someone else's financial affairs, including in the event of accident or illness. But no. (d) My mother MUST get on the phone and VERBALLY INFORM AT&T that she wanted my name on the account.

My mother lives four states away and it upsets her to have to talk to strangers on the phone. I asked a cousin to walk Mom through it, which they did. While my cousin had AT&T Customer Service on the phone, she asked about the $800 problem. Answer: this Customer Service representative firmly informed my cousin that the ONLY way to claim the overpayment would be with A PAPER TRAIL meaning the PHYSICAL check. Which, since AT&T electronically transmitted the check to Mom's bank, AT&T presumably has!

There's a distinct pattern here, and customer service is not an apt name for it. AT&T Customer Service (sic) having wasted much more of my time than I had time to spare, I was ready to write off Mom's $800 as Alzheimer-affected bad judgment and thank my lucky stars I got her into Assisted Living when I did. But was her $800, not mine to write off or not. So I tried again. This time I hit pay dirt. Of a sort. I learned that—

(a) Mom and my cousin did get my name onto the account as an authorized person. Hallelujah.

(b) Somebody at AT&T had finally investigated the problem, ten weeks after I first talked to them about it. They noted on the electronic accounts records the following:

(c) Mom's $800 check was received in an envelope with an account slip that had the name, address and $800 phone bill of one of her neighbors.

(d) AT&T therefore assumed that she intended to pay that bill

(e) AT&T can do absolutely nothing to help Mom get her $800 back.

I'll think of it as the Alzheimer's tax.

So far as I know, Mom only blew $2-3,000 on a fly-by-night contractor, six or ten ostensible law-enforcement-related fund-raising organizations, plus the neighbor's phone bill. For the Alzheimer's tax, $2-3000 isn't much. Some people afflicted with Alzheimer's lose far more money than that, either by making mistakes or by being conned by unscrupulous contractors or people they know. In Mom's case, my best guess is that the wrong AT&T bill was mis-delivered by the Postal Carrier. Mom saw how much it was for but didn't comprehend that it was for a completely different person at a different address. Alzheimer's tax.... The lost $800 would cover only ten (10) days in Assisted Living. Assisted Living is expensive. It's just that with Alzheimer's, the alternatives to Assisted Living tend to be even more expensive.

In an ironic footnote to this misadventure, you might note the (sporadic) insistence from AT&T's Customer Service representatives on Giving Out Account Information Only to Someone Authorized. It sounds like something resembling customer service—protecting the customer's information as a service to the customer. Ah, but if you Google "AT&T privacy warrantless" you can read all about AT&T giving customers' communications records to the National Security Agency. Caveat citizen.

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