1 April 2002
Don't Ever Say "Yes" over the Telephone
By Ed Ross
My Verizon bill appeared with a $31.45 charge by something called "Hold Billing" on behalf of something else called Mercury Internet. I'd never heard of either party, so it seemed I must have been slammed.
If you've never experienced "slamming," it's when your local provider replaces your usual long distance provider with a much more expensive one that you've never heard of.
Later, the FCC told me I wasn't slammed—I was crammed. That means the interloper need provide no service whatsoever, and Verizon collects from the user, or tries to, regardless. I figured this would be a matter of calling Verizon and telling them to take it off. The first of the Verizon ladies I spoke to told me that I had to call "Hold Billing." She tried to be sympathetic but said that I should be careful never to say the word "yes" to anyone on the telephone unless I knew the other party well. She said that if asked an innocent sounding question, you can be slammed/crammed if you answer "yes."
That gives Verizon customers a real warm feeling, doesn't it? America's largest telephone company tells you to watch what you say—it may have to mug you. Verizon Lady II added to this warning, and Verizon Lady III suggested that the crammer can ask you anything at all, such as whether you're a Red Sox fan. The interloper then records words around your reply, and you've subscribed to his service. In my case, I remember a strange call in which someone asked whether he could send me a package describing his service. No package arrived in the mail; instead, I was crammed.
"Hold Billing" had only a recorded message giving me Mercury Internet's number. The Mercury Internet Person (or possibly a parrot) said, "We will discontinue your service today." Asked what the service was, she repeated, "We will discontinue your service today." "What service?" I asked. "We will discontinue your service today," said the parrot. In spite of that assertion, the next month another service fee brought the cramming charge to $62.90.
At this point I terminated my long distance, cable, and broadband Internet services. I switched to RCN, a company that offers everything and would have a vested interest in preventing slamming or cramming.
Let's bring this into focus by making a comparison with a simple mugging case.
A thug comes up behind you, hits you on the head with a lead pipe, and takes your wallet. The case comes to trial.
The thug pleads, "Lucky Louie is the guilty one. He told me this user owed him money. So it's Lucky Louie who really hit him with the lead pipe and took his money."
You tell the judge that you've never heard of Lucky Louie, and you're sure you don't owe him a red cent.
What happens then? In a normal court, I'm not sure what happens to Lucky Louie, but the thug goes to jail. That's not the FTC's view. Why not?
In 1999, John A. Goodman, Verizon's legal counsel, submitted the following suggestion concerning the FTC rule changes regarding cramming.
"The proposed rule changes, which are directed at cramming . . . are misguided because the best way to stop cramming is to go after the crammers. It is not to regulate the billing services offered by local telephone companies and to impose on those companies' obligations. . . ."
Lucky Louie is therefore the criminal. The mugger is blameless. Apparently, this interpretation is now law.
Would a bank that gave away your deposits to any crook who asked for them not be held liable?
Although Verizon has succeeded in protecting itself from any liability under the FCC regulations, its attitude is dumb. As America's largest telephone service, it ought to be making telephoning nice, pleasant, and efficient, instead of unpleasant, irritating, and dangerous.
Actually, I suppose I should be grateful. My new telephone services are as good as Verizon's and AT&T's, my cable TV is superior, and my Internet access is vastly superior. In the three months I've had RCN, I've been down for only about 90 seconds. With MediaOne, I regularly had trouble at peak periods.
And the support! No waiting, amazing competence, unfailing courtesy! When I couldn't get my video recorder to work, a lovely young girl (she sounded young and lovely) patiently walked me through the setup procedure and finally told me that my VCR must be defective. Was this the old blame-the-other-guy ploy? I replaced the VCR with another from my closet of old VCRs—and found she was right.
I called another RCN lady to make sure a block was on my account to prevent slams or crams. There was a block. But she also told me I should call Verizon and ask for the Slamming Department. I was turned over to Verizon Lady IV, who promptly canceled the $62.90 and apologized profusely. It's too bad that the people at RCN know Verizon better than it knows itself.
Somehow, companies that were formerly closely regulated never seem to get the idea that they need to serve the customer. They see the user as a captive.
Then I bought 1,000 shares of RCN stock. I've never before traded for a stock that listed at $1.31, but its employees seem to really like the company. After only a week, the stock was up to $1.87.
Best of all, I can now say "yes" on the telephone. MC
Edward A. Ross is president of Ross Associates in Needham, Mass., and author of The Ross Guide to the Motion Control Industry. Contact Ed at (781) 449-5123.
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