Cut off: Sprint can't get its dates straight

"Until two weeks ago, the most annoying thing about Sprint was the fact that I would be charged $3 per phone call into Customer Solutions." By the time Dayna Brazille emailed me to say that, she had discovered that in the world of Sprint PCS (i.e., mobile phone) service, life can get a lot more annoying than that.

On October 14, for starters, her service was shut off. "I called in and was told that I had exceeded my daytime minutes by 450+ minutes. I was surprised, to say the least. I could understand if it was a minimal overage, but 450+ minutes meant that I had spent an additional seven hours on the phone, in addition to the first 200 minutes."

Brazille had to pay part of the bill to get her service restored, but waited to pay the full amount– $221– until she saw the itemized invoice. When it arrived she scanned the list of calls, and verified that she had indeed made them.

"Then I saw something strange. My invoice was clearly dated from September 23 to October 22. But the first call on the invoice was made on August 12. After carefully examining the invoice, this is what I found: Calls #1-198 [of 390] were made from the period August 12-September 22." Sprint had begun charging Brazille for extra minutes– at 40 cents a minute– on September 10.

When she called Customer Solutions again, the representative "was very nice." She stated that Sprint had had some "billing errors" in Brazille's service area, and put her on hold. A minute later she was back, stating that "she had removed the $190.40 in charges. She was very apologetic."

Brazille asked how other Sprint customers would know that their bills were incorrect if they didn't examine them closely. The employee replied that Customer Solutions reps "had been made aware of this error" two weeks earlier, and told to expect customers' calls.

Brazille pointed out that she had called two weeks earlier; why hadn't the error been explained then? The employee couldn't say– but, of course, there's no way to verify that her call was made before Sprint realized its mistake and alerted employees.

"My purpose," Brazille concluded, is "to let other Sprint customers know about this 'billing error.' I find it disgusting that Sprint is doing nothing on their own to correct this, but rather relying on the customer" to discover Sprint's mistake– which, as Brazille's case proves, could easily lead to service interruption and high bills.

I spoke with Jim Harlow, Sprint public affairs manager for Charlottesville, who said that Sprint PCS had had "a massive billing error" due to a network problem. He then referred me to Mary Elsass, who is the director of public relations for Horizon PCS, the Sprint affiliate that provides cellular service for 54 markets, including Charlottesville.

Elsass said that in most cases, the mistake was caught so quickly that customers weren't aware there'd been a problem. Some, however including Brazille "slipped through." One factor that worked against Brazille was her account spending limit, which means that her service plan puts a cap on minutes. Once that's exceeded by a certain number of minutes, service is automatically suspended.

Luckily, Brazille realized her phone had been turned off within a matter of hours and was able to get it turned back on. What's worrisome is that the Customer Solutions rep wasn't able– or, perhaps, neglected– to make sure the cutoff was legitimate before requiring Brazille to pay to have it restored.

I'm not a cell-phone user, but if I were, I'd make a point of checking call dates to make sure they fell within the billing cycle. Failure to do so, as Brazille's case makes clear, could be an expensive oversight.

There's another issue, however, that concerns me even more. Brazille's cell phone is her only phone; what if she'd had some kind of emergency during the time it was mistakenly shut off? Horizon and Sprint PCS would be wise to reconsider their guidelines for service interruption– and their procedures for responding when customers call to protest– with the goal of avoiding future debacles.

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.