Phone Bills That Charge You Twice
By Don Oldenburg, Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006
Need a reminder to scrutinize all charges on your bills in
the new year? Try this telling tele-tale:
After switching her long-distance calls to an Internet (VOIP)
service recently, Jenifer Boadwine cut back her Verizon
unlimited nationwide calling plan to a cheaper Verizon
regional plan to save a few bucks.
But when the Olney home-mortgage consultant got her first
Verizon bill after the switch, she was stumped. "It was
actually higher than when I had all my long-distance calls
included," Boadwine said.
Boadwine uses Verizon's automatic-payment plan and gets her
monthly bill online. So it's a synopsis of the actual bill,
which is difficult to scour line by line for errors. So she
shrugged and figured it might have been one of those
confusing "overlap bills" that prorate charges when you've
changed calling plans or phone carriers. But her next
Verizon bill again seemed too high -- again, by about $40 --
so she asked her fiance, Mark Stevenson, to investigate.
"He's a little more forthright than I am," the laid-back
Boadwine said. "If there is a discrepancy, even a few
dollars, Mark'll find it."
Digging into the details, Stevenson, a mechanical engineer,
did a double take at what looked to him like a double
charge. Verizon was billing his sweetie for the local plan,
for the new regional plan and also for a la carte services
that are included in the regional plan. Sorry, wrong
He called Verizon to complain. "The customer service
representative said that they knew they've been having an
issue with their system double-billing," Stevenson said.
"When I asked if they were taking any steps to remedy this
by notifying their customers . . . or refunding money, they
simply said 'no,' that most people call when they notice
that they're being overcharged."
Verizon refunded Boadwine's overcharges, but Stevenson was
troubled by the company's apparent laissez-faire attitude of
overlooking erroneous charges unless customers notice and
complain. "These days people are so busy. . . . I'm sure
there are a large number of customers who wouldn't realize
they're being ripped off month after month by their phone
company," he said.
When the Consummate Consumer asked Verizon about the
overcharge, Harry Mitchell, director of Verizon's
Mid-Atlantic Bureau, investigated and found that "a system
problem" had indeed caused incorrect billing -- and not just
on Boadwine's bill. "About 150 other customers,"
specifically in the mid-Atlantic area, were affected, said
Mitchell, adding that, overall, there are 4 million Verizon
customers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the
While he dared not say it and risk anyone thinking that
Verizon doesn't care about those 150 customers, the
implication of course is that 150 out of 4 million is a drop
in the bucket. Which is true -- unless you're the drop.
Mitchell said Verizon isn't ignoring overcharged customers.
"Our employee who spoke with the customer unfortunately
misspoke and gave the customer erroneous information about
our company policy on billing," he said, explaining that
Verizon reviews its billing system to try to make sure bills
are accurate. "We have identified and corrected the error,
and we identified and are properly adjusting the affected
But the telephone industry is notorious for unfathomable
bills and billing glitches. A recent and rather significant
example came last month, when Pennsylvania Attorney General
Tom Corbett announced that AT&T would pay $550,000 in
refunds and credits to settle charges that it had
erroneously billed 49,000 consumers $3.95 a month over three
Last year, when the Federal Communications Commission
reviewed rulemaking in Truth-in-Billing consumer protection
regulations, the nation's state attorneys general told the
FCC that based on the consumer complaints they receive,
there is "significant consumer confusion related to
misleading practices in billing for telecommunications
services" and that, over the past five years,
telecommunications-related complaints ranked "in the top
four of all consumer complaints".
No surprise to Tom Allibone, who never gives the telephone
industry a ringing endorsement. "These systemic,
chronic-type billing problems, they exist all over the
place," said the director of auditing at TeleTruth, a New
Jersey telecommunications watchdog group, and former member
of the FCC's consumer advisory committee.
Allibone said typical billing discrepancies include
jacked-up Federal Universal Service Fund surcharges (he
calls this a phone company "slush fund"), double-dipping on
taxes and "overcharging or overbilling". Verizon and other
telecommunications companies typically fall back on the
"honest billing glitch" excuse when caught doing it, he
says. "There was a systemic error ... it's funny how they
come back and say that."
James Hood, chief executive of Consumeraffairs.com, a
consumer-advocacy organization, has little patience for
companies that nickel-and-dime consumers with erroneous or
stealth charges. "This is exactly the tactic that is used
by low-life scam artists -- put a small charge on a
customer's credit card or phone bill each month in hopes
that the consumer won't notice," he said. "Those who are
exceptionally alert can usually get the charges removed, but
most consumers never notice. for a company of Verizon's
stature to remain quiet about a billing error is
Mitchell said errors occur "...and, when that happens, we
work with affected customers to make the bill right." He
recommends that customers review all of their bills for
accuracy. "If they have a question or see a discrepancy,
they should contact us. We will be happy to work with them
to answer those questions and ensure their bill is
But Stevenson wonders what might have happened if he hadn't
caught the error. "I just don't like to see big business
take an apathetic approach to taking care of their
customers," he said. "I wouldn't want my family or friends
to be bilked because they simple didn't pay attention to the
detailed breakdown of their bill.
Don Oldenburg, The
Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071,