THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Mail call: Cingular's singular pricing plan

When Julia Blodgett heard that Cingular was rated worst for customer service among cell-phone companies in 2004, she wasn't surprised. She'd devoted a good chunk of time and energy to a billing dispute with Cingular, so it was easy to believe that others had as well.

According to the July Consumer Reports, Cingular– which became the largest wireless phone company in the U.S. when it merged last year with AT&T– "had a complaint rate nearly four times the rate for Verizon Wireless, the nation's second-largest carrier." The report was based on data from the Federal Communications Commission.

Blodgett switched to Cingular when it bought SunCom. Along with everyone else affected by the merger, she went to the Emmet Street store, turned in her old phone, and got one that would work on Cingular's network. She also signed up for a plan that allowed 1100 minutes a month and free nights and weekends for $69 a month. That was on April 20.

She called sometime around May 15 to check her minutes and learned that she was "hundreds of minutes" over her limit. Even though a Cingular customer service employee gave her an extra 200 minutes (because she'd been confused about when the billing cycle began), she was still facing a hefty bill: 35 cents per excess minute. To stop the meter at least temporarily, she turned the ringer off and accepted no incoming calls the week of May 16 (except for "one or two" on Friday, May 20, while traveling to New York). Calls over the weekend were free.

On Monday, May 23, she called Cingular again to check her minutes and was astounded to hear that she'd racked up "another 500 or so" in the past week. The next day she called to ask whether Cingular might be charging her for calls that had been forwarded to voice mail, but says she was told "that didn't happen." (She would be charged, of course, for listening to the messages.)

But it had: When she checked her bill on Cingular's website on Memorial Day, she realized that she had indeed been charged for hundreds of minutes' worth of calls sent to her voice mailbox. Blodgett is a psychologist who specializes in psychoeducational testing, and maintains a waiting list for her services; traffic into her voice mail is heavy (I can attest to this, as she's an adjunct faculty member in the department at UVA where I work).

She went to the Emmet Street store, where an employee listened, took notes, and spoke to "three or four" Cingular employees by phone. There was no resolution, however; Blodgett claims the employee said it would be difficult for her to "prove" which calls went directly to voice mail, as the bill does not include the caller's number on incoming calls. In other words, Cingular had only Blodgett's word that she hadn't accepted the calls she claimed had been forwarded to voice mail.

Blodgett followed up the next day with a letter in which she listed specific calls that had come in when she was doing such things as meeting with headmasters at St. Anne's-Belfield and the Covenant School, attending a three-hour faculty meeting, in session at a professional conference, hooked up to an EEG machine during a biofeedback session, meeting with a computer consultant, or in an observation booth at UVA– i.e., instances where others could confirm that she hadn't accepted any phone calls. She received no reply to her letter.

I contacted Cingular public relations on June 1, and wheels were beginning to turn. But when Blodgett's phone "died" on June 5– for what she claims was the second time in less than seven weeks– she decided to call it quits and switched to another company.

She has notified Cingular that she expects them to drop the overage charges; if that doesn't happen, I'll let you know.

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.#


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