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Contesting a $2,724.14 data charge from AT&T / Cingular

:: Sunday, September 2nd, 2007 @ 6:16:03 pm

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I have a Blackberry Pearl, and am under a plan which Cingular used to call “Blackberry International Unlimited”, which advertised unlimited data usage internationally for $69.99/month. A bundled voice plan gave me a $5 discount on the plan, making it $64.99/month for data. There was no fine print stating anything about the type of data used, but I assumed that if I ever saw a roaming indicator, I would probably get charged for the data usage. — warning, this is long! —

When Cingular became AT&T, the plan’s name changed. The analogous plan is now called, “BlackBerry® International with Voice” for $64.99/month (again, requiring a voice plan as well), and their website currently states as the plans’ description as the following:

Use your BlackBerry device to send and receive unlimited e-mail in the U.S. and around the world in over 135 countries.

… so clearly, that’s different than being able to use unlimited data. But the plan I signed up for wasn’t worded that way.

So here’s my story:

I travel out of the country a lot and use my Blackberry for e-mail, web surfing, and other apps that require data (GMail, Opera, etc.). I sometimes use the Blackberry’s e-mail client to send small images to an e-mail address that automatically posts the image to my Flickr account and to this journal; it’s quite handy, really. I also occasionally tether for data access via computer. And when tethering, I am a responsible user and do not transfer huge amounts of data.

During the billing cycle between May 16 and June 15, 2007, I spent a couple of weeks in eastern Indonesia, where I found that I had GPRS even while floating on a boat just off of cities that barely have roads going to them! I was amazed, and was happy to have data access in such a remote location. And so, being on the unlimited plan (and never having seen a roaming indicator), I used my Blackberry as I normally would here in the States. Remote data goodness!

June 23, 2007

When I returned home, I received a Cingular bill with $2,724.14 in data charges. Calmly, I called customer support, which is one of my favorite things in life EVER. Every time I call Cingular / AT&T, I have to first convince the support person that there exists such a thing as an international unlimited plan. 90% of the people I reach tell me that I have a plan that “enables” international Blackberry usage, but that I’d have to pay for the data. This just isn’t the case. The normal Blackberry plan can have its plan unlocked for metered international access. Why would I pay $20 more per month for the same thing? Anyway, so after establishing the fact that I was, indeed, on a plan that would in theory allow unlimited international usage, I was told, “I see that you shouldn’t have been charged because you have an unlimited international data plan. Unfortunately, because the amount in question is so high, I have to file a billing ticket.” I was told that the billing ticket would be approved or denied by the powers that be, and that I should check back within 7-10 business days. She said that I should NOT pay the bill, and that it should all be resolved before my billing due date of July 5, 2007. Wrong.

Early July, 2007

While I was out of the country, I received a voicemail from AT&T with no return number. She stated that “Blackberry data on the Blackberry network differs from data on the non-Blackberry network. You can use non-Blackberry data for free in the States, but you get charged for it when you’re out of the country.” She said that AT&T would refund me $750.

That’s a mixed message! Here’s the message, “you’re at fault… but, well, here’s some money, because maybe you aren’t…” There was no way I was going to pay the balance.

The AT&T store I walked into before I left for my Indonesia trip had all sorts of third-party application installed on their Blackberries. Opera was a favorite, and the staff there used it to test whether non-Blackberry data was working properly. Having seen applications like this in official AT&T environments, I assumed that I would be able to use these sorts of applications even when out of the country. Nothing I signed differentiates the difference between the two types of data.

July 8, 2007

I called customer service again to escalate the issue, asking them to submit another billing ticket. I requested a credit of the remaining balance, which was $2,724.14 – 750 = $1,974.14.

August 4, 2007

I still hadn’t heard anything from AT&T, so I decided to file a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission. I then called AT&T again, and managed to get ahold of a supervisor. She told me that I was right: I shouldn’t have been charged for the data I used, and that they would be filing for a credit request. They said they couldn’t go the billing ticket route because the issue had already gone through that process and couldn’t be contested. I was told to call back in 7-10 business days.

August 18, 2007

Called in to check in on status. Nothing, yet.

August 25, 2007

Received a call from AT&T. I was told that the reason I was billed for the data was because I “had two data plans on my account: one that charges per use, and one that doesn’t. The system automatically uses the one that charges more.” Furthermore, I was told that the charges were 100% their fault, and that they were a result of no fault of mine. The guy told me he would get the amount adjusted and that there would be no responsibility for me to pay it, no late fees, and no account cancellation (at this point, I was getting threatening letters in the mail). He said he would call me back when the issue was resolved.

August 31, 2007

Received this email:

From: NO_REPLY.CSP@cingular.com Date: August 31, 2007 9:34:38 PM PDT To: Eric Cheng Subject: AT&T Customer Notification (Change to Your Wireless Account) Thank you for choosing AT&T for your business wireless needs! This e-mail is a follow-up to our previous conversation on 8/31/2007 to ensure your needs were serviced correctly. On 8/31/2007, (NAME WITHHELD) processed the following changes to your account: 1. Change to your bill 2. This email is to inform you that the requested refund for international roaming has been credited to your account. Please let us know if you have any further questions or concerns. Please allow 1-2 bill cycles for this transaction to reflect on your next bill and account summary. If you have further questions about your AT&T business needs, please refer to http://www.att.com/business or by calling us at (800) 331-0500. Sincerely, (NAME WITHHELD) Business Markets Group (BMG) Customer Services (800) 331-0500

September 2, 2007

Logged into my account… and money was there!

Final Thoughts

A big WHEW, mixed with a healthy dose of what. the. fuck!?! How can a company exist that pisses so many people off?!

The supervisor told me that if this ever happened again, I should call in again to have the charges reversed. But next time, is it going to take nearly three months to resolve?

I wish there were a proper international plan that didn’t involve AT&T, but at the moment, nothing exists. I’m out of the country 50% of the time and need data access while I am away. Since I moved over to Cingular / AT&T, Verizon has released an international Blackberry offering that combines CDMA and GSM/GPRS support. If AT&T pisses me off again, I will likely jump ship. I was on Verizon for years and was consistently happier with their service than I am with the service from Cingular.

Plus, I would be happy to be able to put my phone near a goddamn amplifier/speaker again.

| Oakland, CA | link | trackback | Sep 2, 2007 18:16:03
  • http://www.deepdreams.com Rogier

    Wow that sucks! Can’t wait to see the iPhone users comming back from their summer vacation abbroad..

  • Sandy

    It’s amazing how fast their tune changes with a complaint with the Utilities Commission… And yeah..I have the same Star Wars stamps :)

  • http://alexking.org/ Alex

    T-Mobile gave me international data as a $20/month add-on last year – seems like activating a plan like that would be a lot simpler than going the AT&T route. Thought it kinda defeats the purpose of having a phone that can already do international data w/ AT&T. :)

  • http://scorpioillusions.com george vincent

    That’s nothing. They all suck. Verizon is worse. We had to run our company using one shared dial-up modem for 6 weeks while waiting for Verizon to resolve an issue.

    Even now, if I have an internet connection issue, I have no where to call. There are two service departments; dial-up and DSL. I have neither. After 20 minutes of menu selections I have to choose one or the other. Whichever I choose, they tell me I have the wrong department. They then transfer me. I end up back at the beginning.

  • http://echeng.com echeng

    George – the CPUC complaint works, but it can take awhile. It took AT&T 4 weeks to call me back about the complaint I filed, but they were pretty serious when they called. Norb Wu recommended it to me, and he’s an expert at this stuff. :)

  • http://www.shizknitz.com Shiz

    Hi Eric, sorry to hear you had so much trouble. I just recently begain working at AT&T in their mgmt ranks, and we have an internal method for reporting issues people have with AT&T service, or with bill issues, and they relentlessly work with the customer until it is resolved. If you run into anything like this next time (and I hope you don’t), drop me an email and I’d be more than happy to help get it resolved for you.

  • Craig Anderson

    Hi Eric I know that this all happened over a year ago but I recently have joined the ranks of AT&T and I can assure you that things have changed a great deal. I on a daily basis refund and change plans for voice and data that save subscribers money on overage charges.

    I hope that your experiences with the new AT&T have gotten better.

    Thanks, C. Anderson

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