Let me go!: How many "final" bills?

Here's a handy device I'll bet Edward Nemergut wishes he'd been using last November, when he claims he called Sprint to cancel one part of his service: a telephone tape recorder. Although I haven't used mine in several years, I recommend them occasionally– and yes, they're legal in Virginia. As long as one party (that would be you) knows the conversation's being recorded, it's kosher.

Nemergut's tale began last June, when he called EarthLink to sign up for internet dial-up service and was pleasantly surprised to learn that since Sprint is his long-distance carrier, he qualified for a plan that would save him money on his phone bill. As described on Sprint's website, "For $19.95 per month, Sprint 7ยข AnyTime plus Internet gives you unlimited EarthLink Internet Access, plus residential long-distance and local toll (where available) service– all on one monthly bill."

Nemergut signed up, and was "very pleased" with the service. This fall he and his wife moved to Ivy, however, which put them outside EarthLink's service area. In a December 29 letter to Sprint Customer Service, Nemergut detailed his attempts to cancel the Internet service and switch to a different calling plan.

"On November 4, 2003, I called your customer service center and spoke to a very nice young lady, who indicated that she would cancel the program. She explained that I would still have to pay a 'final bill,' as I had discontinued in the middle of the month. I agreed."

According to Nemergut, he received that bill on November 25 and paid it. "Wanting to be sure that everything had been taken care of appropriately," he wrote, "I called your customer service center again to make sure that I had indeed cancelled the program. I spoke with another very nice young lady who assured me that 'everything had been taken care of.' I also signed up for some kind of 10 cents [a minute] anytime long-distance program." When he hung up, Nemergut "felt certain" that his former service had been cancelled.

Alas, it hadn't. On December 27, Nemergut received another bill for the combined Internet-service-and-long-distance plan. This time, he claims, the Sprint employee he spoke with said the account was still "active" and that she could find no evidence that he had tried to cancel it. "She assured me that she would cancel the service, but indicated that I would have to pay the December bill"– as well as another "final" bill.

"Obviously, this is ridiculous," Nemergut wrote. "How many times do I need to cancel a service with Sprint before it is indeed cancelled?"

Nemergut discovered that EarthLink had cancelled his Internet service on November 4– the same day he says he called Sprint. "How do you think it is possible," he wrote, "for EarthLink to get word of my attempts to close my account and for there to be no record of my account closure (twice) in your computer?"

Sprint customer service wrote back to say, "A careful review of your account and call detail indicates that the calls in question were made from the telephone number assigned to you. Since the calls were dialed directly from your number, we were unable to approve your credit request." Long-distance calls, however, were never in dispute; it was the $19.95 monthly Internet charge Nemergut was protesting.

In the end, Sprint sent Nemergut's account to collections, and he ended up paying for two months of Internet service he maintains he shouldn't have been charged for. Faced with the threat of having his phone service cut off, he decided to be safe and pay up.

I spoke with Jim Harlow, Sprint public affairs manager for Charlottesville, who referred the matter to Susan Hutchison in Sprint's executive office in Dallas. Hutchison, according to Nemergut, asked whether he might have called EarthLink separately, and he can't swear he didn't– but even if he did, of course, Sprint employees, by his account, assured him the service had been cancelled.

In any case, Hutchison arranged for a $39.90 credit (two months of Internet service at $19.95 each) to his account, and Nemergut pronounced himself satisfied.

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.