THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Wrong numbers: Embarq's bills mystify customer

When Alexis Zeigler opened his phone bill in May and saw $429.58 in charges for long distance, what he calls his "personal nightmare" began.

After all, in early May Zeigler had signed up for Sprint Solutions, which promised unlimited long distance for a flat rate of $25.95 a month. Yet the bill contained long-distance charges as high as $5.63 for one minute– and that was in addition to the $25.95 he had been charged for Sprint Solutions. 

Zeigler claims he called customer service and spent "several hours" speaking to representatives and explaining that the bill was incorrect– by about $400. His efforts, alas, were for naught; June's total was $565.67, of which $474.63 was for long distance. The bill, from the newly merged Sprint/Embarq, could confused anyone.

First, the 68 long-distance calls from May– labeled "Sprint Casual Charges"– were individually listed and retracted. Right after that, however, 65 new "Casual Charges" appeared, for a total of $474.63– in addition, once again, to $25.95 for Embarq Solutions. 

Zeigler says he wrote Embarq/Sprint a "slightly jovial in nature" letter on July 1, in which he threatened to sue if the overbilling didn't stop. It didn't: July's bill was for $735.43, which included $25.95 for the elusive Embarq Solutions, $120.63 for long-distance, and the past-due balance of $565.67 from June. Instead of "Casual Charges," this time the long-distance is for "Nickel Nights," but no explanation of what that means or itemized list of calls is included. 

Several days later, Zeigler got a letter from Sprint/Embarq demanding $105.50; failure to pay would mean having his phone cut off. Zeigler called and had a "lengthy" conversation with a Sprint/Embarq representative, which he recorded. The representative, he says, stated that if he paid $112.66, all past-due fees would be cancelled and his service would not be cut off. "It was not clear to me where that number came from, or if it was legitimate," Zeigler says; even so, he paid up. 

The incorrect bills, however, continued; August's was for $518.94, and is almost incomprehensible. The past-due amount is now $322.76, and new charges come to $186.18: $65.24 for Nickel Nights, $94.99 for local services (up, inexplicably, from an average of $21 for the two previous months), and, as always, $25.95 for Embarq Solutions. 

September's bill was for $644.98, broken down as follows: $518.94 in past-due charges, $32.40 for Embarq Solutions– which had been increased by $6.45 with no explanation– $28.40 for local services, and $59.95 for Nickel Nights. After that, Zeigler cancelled Embarq/Sprint Solutions and went back to his previous long-distance carrier. 

On September 26 and 28, Zeigler received letters demanding $519.88 and $65.24, respectively, which again threatened interruption of service. On October 4, his phone was cut off. After more lengthy calls to Embarq/Sprint customer service– during one of which, Zeigler claims, the representative came up with three different amounts that he owed– his phone service was reconnected. 

Let's cut to the chase and just say that the threatening letters and incorrect bills continued. Finally, on November 7, Zeigler wrote a letter to the Hook. "The freedom of speech in the public forum," he wrote, "is at times our only defense against the overwhelming power of the big companies when they abuse their power." 

I called Margaret Wright, Embarq's regional public affairs manager, on November 28, and within a matter of hours the problem had been resolved. Zeigler, she confirmed, had indeed ordered Sprint (later Embarq/Sprint) Solutions; all she could say in explanation was that either the order hadn't been entered or had been cancelled accidentally. She also confirmed that Zeigler had been told in June that the problem would be corrected, and that it hadn't been. 

In addition to removing all the incorrect charges, Wright said she would issue "another credit" to Zeigler, but did not name the amount. She also asked that Embarq customers call her at 971-2208 if they have questions or concerns. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.