the wireless racket

Money laundering? Illegal. Loan sharking? Dangerous. Re-selling beanie babies on ebay? Passe. Where is the quick and dirty money these days? Over-billing in the wireless industry, it seems.

My story begins simply enough. I’ve been a SprintPCS customer for over 5 years or so, now. I’ve never been particularly content – my loyalty is due more to a combination of laziness and fear that the other providers could possibly be worse, judging from horror stories from my friends.

My old Samsung phone was getting a little beat up, and failed to even get a signal in my new apartment. I decided to replace it. I stopped at the Sprint store after work one day, and had a sales rep help me pick out a phone: a Sanyo, simple and cheap at $99, he noted. It had a camera phone, which is useless to me, but it was the only model that had an external LCD for caller ID. I found my phone. When it came time to pay for the phone and get it switched over, he rings up my total: “That’ll be $248, sir.” As I’m handing him my credit card, a light bulb goes off. “Wait, I thought it was $99,” I say, yanking my credit card back from his grasp. “Oh, that’s after the rebate. It’s $230 before.” Odd that he didn’t think to mention this until I was literally handing him my credit card. First strike for dishonesty. Nonetheless, I thought I could handle a rebate – after all, how bad can it be? (Had I listened carefully, surely I would have heard the gods laughing at me at that moment.)

Needless to say, I never got my rebate. I sent in the receipt and the form dutifully, and received a letter back telling me that the phone I purchased was not eligible for rebate (despite being listed on the card I filled out, and above all, assured by the sales rep). So, I made a trip to the SprintPCS store and luckily found the same sales rep that originally sold me the phone and showed him the letter I got and explained the situation. He assured me that he would take care of it and that I should get a refund soon. The refund never came.

That same month, my girlfriend Amanda decided to finally jump on the cellphone bandwagon. Sprint had a promotion running to add a phone to an existing plan free for 2 months (and $20/mo after that). We bought the phone, got it activated and we were off and running.

The next month, I never got the refund for the rebate I never got. But, I did get a surprise from Sprint nonetheless: a $215 withdrawl from Sprint. I have Sprint setup to auto-debit their bill every month (big mistake, evidently). Now, I am not exactly poor, but a $215 hit to my checking account is still nothing for me to scoff at.

When I looked at the invoice, it became very clear what happened. Somehow they added Amanda’s phone to my account but not to my minutes plan. So she had an active phone with no minutes. Every single call she made was accruing a per-minute charge.

I called SprintPCS and explained what happened to a very understanding sales rep who said she could see what happened. She said she’d fix it and issue a refund ASAP. It was never fixed, and I never saw a refund.

Next month, I got another surprise: a $184 bill. (Still no refund for the non-rebate). Same thing had happened. I called Sprint again, this time getting a very non-understanding (both literally and figuratively) sales rep. He repeatedly assumed that since my girlfriend had “used too many minutes” that he could solve this problem by changing my plan. “I know how to fix this. We can add more minutes to your plan.” I had been over-billed by over $100 and the guy is trying to sell me something. Finally I made it clear what was going on, and he said he was transferring me to “the refund department”. The refund department, whatever it is, was closed.

I called back and got a much friendlier sales rep who seemed befuddled as to why the previous guy didn’t understand what had happened. She also informed me that there was no “refund department”. She could see clearly what had happened, for both months. She’d fix the account and issue a refund, but her supervisor had to approve it. Naturally, I was a little dubious of this claim. I asked if there was a ticket number I could refer to and call to confirm when I could see the refund. She said I should expect a call the next day from her supervisor, and that if I didn’t, I should give them a call. Next day: no call. I called and asked for a status, and they said it took 3-5 days to issue a refund. I called them after 5 days, and got halfway through a conversation with a sales rep who had no idea what I was talking about before I hung up. My patience had run thin.

By this time, the next month’s invoice was delivered: phew, no overcharging. So my problem was finally fixed, but still no refund.

Giving up on the phone, I armed myself with printouts of the two month’s invoices, highlighted meticulously with everything I expected a refund on, and drove to the store.

When I arrived, I spoke with a young lady who was curt, but cooperative. She seemed to have no problem refunding my money. I first explained the cellphone rebate issue, which she took my word on, and went ahead and issued a credit for $130. (You may have noticed the shift in wording here from “refund” to “credit”. I didn’t. At first.) I explained the problem with the over-billing and she took care of that as well. I asked if they would cut a check or refund it to the credit card I pay my bill with or what. She informed me that it wasn’t a refund, but a credit to my account.

My eyes bugged out a little bit at this point. I asked if there was a way for me to actually get my money back. “I’m all for giving no-interest loans for $400 to Sprint and everything,” I told her, “but money is a little tight this month.” She re-iterated she could only give account credit. She went and got a manager who was standing behind her that said they could only issue account credit. No refunds. Figuring something was better than nothing, I took what I could get and ran.

Tonight, I called Sprint to clarify this policy:

“Is it your policy that if Sprint makes a billing mistake, you do not give refunds? You over-billed me $400 as you can see. There’s no way you can cut me a check?”

“Yes, we can only give credits to the account.”

“Okay, I’m writing an article about cell-phone over-billing, so I want to make this very clear: Sprint’s policy does not allow for any refunds, even if it’s Sprint’s mistake?”

“Well, let me place you on hold for a few minutes to clarify our policy.”


“You still there? Okay, yes, refunds can only be given for three circumstances: 1) a negative credit on the account…”

At this point, I mentally filtered out the other 2 options, as they were irrelevant. I had a negative credit on my account. I saw it right there: $-288. Surely they could cut me a check for this then.

“Well, wait, I do have a negative credit on my account.. does that mean you can cut me a check?”

“We can cut you a check if you have a negative credit on your account and the account is terminated.”

“So let me get this straight, the only way I can get my money back is my cancelling my account?”

“If, after the early termination fees are assessed, there is still a negative balance, we will cut you a check, yes.”

“Oooookay, well, I may have to do that.”

“Okay, thanks.”


Apparently the loss of the business of a 5+ year customer was not a big deal to them.

Of course, I won’t cancel my account, because the amount of early termination fees I would pay very well may nullify the $288 negative balance currently on my account, which is my money to begin with. So, I’m stuck.

This has disturbing implications. What if Sprint had over-billed me $1000? $5000? It would mean I’d have given them a nice interest-free $5000 loan, while being locked into $5000/ months of service. Would I have to take them to small-claims court just to get my money back? Would I even win?

The saddest part of this story is that after all this, I am still a SprintPCS customer. I am locked into my contract, doubly-so by a negative $288 balance, and I have no evidence that other carriers are much better.

Why is it that the cellphone industry is so immune from customer service improvement? Why isn’t there a competitive impetus to improve relations with their customers? Why does everyone hate their wireless carrier? When you go to a restaurant and get a hair in your soup, you get a free meal. I once went to Harris Teeter to get steaks for dinner and their computer system was down. I dined on free steak that night. In the wireless industry, it seems there’s no limit to the abuses that people will put up with.

Why is that? I don’t know. What I do know is that Sprint is one company that is no longer allowed to automatically debit money from my account, and when my contract is up, I’ll be investigating other carriers.