Unsolved mystery: $132 deposit for a land line?

The letter from Sprint arrived in Francesca Fornari's life when her stress was already sky-high. She'd just moved to Charlottesville, was about to start law school, and suddenly had the feeling that getting phone service would make the other annoyances look like a nap in a hammock.

On July 30 she'd applied online for new service. A couple of days later, after receiving no emailed confirmation, she called the website's 800 number and learned that until she paid a deposit of $132, her application was "on hold."

She thought the amount seemed steep, but when the representative told her this was the normal amount, she paid it and signed up for local service, which would cost her $24 a month. That included no special features, and, because she plans to use her cell phone for all long-distance, she didn't designate a long-distance carrier.

Three weeks later, she received a form letter from Sprint stating that the decision to require a deposit stemmed from her credit report. She was concerned that the report might contain wrong information, since, as far as she knew, her credit history was good.

"If you would like a statement of specific reasons why your application [to get service without a deposit] was declined," read the letter, "please contact us at 1-877-386-0217."

So she called the number. The description that follows comes from a letter she wrote Sprint on August 25.

"I am not going to recount," she began, "the many conversations I had with the multiple departments I was transferred to in the several hours I spent trying to simply request what was offered in the letter... I was treated rudely, repeatedly told in so many words that what I was saying did not make sense... and that Sprint has 'no knowledge' of why my application was denied. In addition, I was told that the [phone] number listed in the letter was incorrect."

She went on to request the statement of reasons she'd been unable to order by phone, and ended by stating that she has filed a complaint with the State Corporation Commission. She also contacted me.

I began by calling the number in the form letter and asking if I was in the right place to get a statement of reasons that would explain why Sprint was requiring a deposit for new service. The person on the other end was mystified by this request and transferred me to customer service– where an equally mystified employee said customer service has nothing to do with determining deposits or explaining the reasons behind them.

I gave up on that and attempted to check with Jim Harlow, Sprint public relations manager, and Kim Burton, who manages Charlottesville's call center (where requests for new service are processed). I expected to hear back from one of them the next day, but instead got a call from Tom Matthews, a Sprint spokesman in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

The conversation was frustrating. Matthews began by explaining how Sprint computes deposits when, based on a number of factors, they're required at all. That was fine– except that his example included an estimated $50 per month in long distance, and nothing I said could convince him that this didn't apply in Fornari's case. I finally gave up, and we moved on to the form letter with the seemingly incorrect number.

That's when things got really strange. Matthews' focus was on finding reasons why such a large deposit made perfect sense, when neither Fornari nor I had been able to find anyone at that number who knew what a "statement of reasons" is. I finally gave up on that point as well.

What concerns me most is that he expressed no concern whatsoever about Fornari's treatment when she was simply following Sprint's instructions for obtaining a promised document. Only when I (again) read him the details of Fornari's experience did he admit that no, that wasn't how a customer should be treated.

Even more curious, he assumed that whatever I wrote would be unfair. "I used to do your job," he said.

After that I tried to get his boss's phone number, but he adamantly refused to cough it up. After more prodding, he finally gave it to me, but by then I was too weary to call; I'd had enough of Sprint for one day– enough, in fact, for a whole passel of days.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700, ext. 406.