Scary Story: Billed for Service I Never Received

In the middle of December I received a bill for $5.30 from Sprint. There's nothing remarkable about this except that I've never had a Sprint account! I immediately called the customer service phone number on the bill. It only took a few moments to reach a live operator. “There must be some mistake,” I told her. “Why am I receiving this bill?”

The operator tried to explain. “Well, sir, the Federal government recently approved a monthly fee for certain types of accounts.” Notice how this phrasing is meant to make you believe the government is levying this fee.

“No,” I said. “I don't care about all that. I mean why am I receiving this bill? I don't have a Sprint account. I don't think I ever have.”

Click-click-click — the operator worked with the computer. “Our records indicate that you opened an account with us in 1995,” she said.

I sighed. “Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. I don't have records from then,” I told her. “Regardless, I certainly don't have an account now.”

The operator was surprisingly agreeable. “No problem, sir. I'll remove the charge and close the account for you.”

Simple, right?

In the middle of January I received a bill for $1.34 from Sprint. On December 28th, a credit of $9.30 had been applied to my account, but the account had not been closed. I immediately called the customer service phone number on the bill. It was impossible to reach a live operator.

“Please enter your home telephone number,” announced the cheery computer menuing system. I did so. “We have no record of that number. Please try again.” I tried again. “We have no record of that number. Good-bye.” Of course they have no record for that number because I don't have a Sprint account!

I dialed the number again, but this time used our old Canby telephone number. It worked. I was forwarded to a seven-item menu. “Press seven for more options,” announced the overly cheery voice. I pressed seven. A five item menu. I pressed five. A six item menu. I pressed six. At last an option to reach a live operator.

“Welcome to Sprint,” she said. “May I have your home telephone number?”

“Do you want my home telephone number, or do you want the number I'm calling about?” I asked.

She seemed confused. Eventually we sorted things out by using the customer number on the bill. “How may I help you today, Mr. Roth?” asked the operator.

“Why am I receiving this bill?” I asked.

“I show you have a balance of $1.34,” she said. “This bill is for that balance due.”

I lost my patience. I hate phone menuing systems. I hate bureaucracy. I hate huge corporations. “No, I said. Why am I receiving this bill? I don't have a Sprint account. I've never had a Sprint account. I called last month and you guys said you'd take care of this and close the account. I don't even live at this address anymore. What the hell is going on?”

To the operator's credit, she handled my anger smoothly. “Very well, sir. Your account is now closed.”

“Excellent!”

“Before you go, sir, can I ask you one question?” she said.

“What is it?”

“Would you like to hear about our Earthlink DSL for only $19.99 a month?”

“Hell no,” I said, and I hung up the phone.

In March I was billed again for $1.34.

 

On the surface, this is a mildly amusing tale of one man against The System. Look deeper though, and it's a little scary.

The US Postal Service is only required to forward your mail for six months after you change your address. I'm not sure why they're still forwarding some of our mail (they're not forwarding all of it), but they are. [This was written on 02 Feb 2005] If they hadn't forwarded these Sprint bills, I never would have known about them. Sprint would have continued to bill me for months. Late charges would have accrued. Eventually this delinquent account would have been reported to a credit agency: a black mark on my record.

Frankly, I'm shocked that a company with which I have no relationship can just start billing me out-of-the-blue. That's insane.

In my righteous anger — tempered by my newfound fiscal responsibility — I marched to a computer and searched for a way to obtain my credit report. (And let me tell you, that brings up a whole new set of rants; there are a thousand-and-one asinine companies trying to thwart google in order to get high pagerank for a search on “credit report”.)

I did find a page from the Federal Trade Commission entitled Your Access to Free Credit Reports. The government has passed a law requiring the three major consumer credit reporting companies to each provide everyone with one free credit report per year. The catch is you have to ask. Fortunately, the Federal government has created a web site to automate this process: AnnualCreditReport.com. You must provide a variety of current personal information, but once you do, you're able to obtain a report from each of the three major credit bureaus.

A visitor left this comment when I originally shared this story at my personal site:

I can tell you that more and more large companies are using this scam to extort money from unsuspecting folks around this country. I've personally been victimized on several occasions and clearing the matter up on your credit report is nearly impossible. Even if you pay the extorted amount these companies claim you owe, they sometimes still report to the credit bureau through a collection agency and you are left defenseless in your attempts to have the negative removed. In fact TransUnion doesn't even investigate. (I currently have a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission against TransUnion.) It seems that the entire system of reporting credit is in need of a major overhaul. By the way why are there three (or more) different entities reporting on your credit worthiness to begin with??? Why has the law allowed so many to be extorted in this manner? I'd hate to believe it was the result of colusion between our elected officials and big business!!??

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so I doubt there's collusion going on. However, I do know that it's far too easy for a large corporation to use heavy-handed tactics against a defenseless customer. How's your credit? Do you have any Sprints out there trying to screw you over while you're not looking. Go take a look. It's free!

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Ryan
Ryan
13 years ago

Since there are three separate agencies required to give you a free credit report, you can keep tabs on your credit by going to one every 4 months. It’s a pretty efficient way to check up on your credit, plus it’s yet another tool to ward off long-term identity theft.

Andrej
Andrej
13 years ago

Is there any way to get a free credit score?

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Excellent question, Andrej. I don’t know of a way to get a free credit SCORE (I’m assuming that you did see the free credit REPORT info). When you request your credit report, there’s usually an option to also purchase your score for $5-$10. I usually do this just to satisfy my curiosity.

For more information, see my previous article offering an anatomy of a credit score, which explains how credit scores work.

Tim
Tim
13 years ago

The credit history is a new concept to me since I’m French and we have nothing similar to it. Since I’m settling down here, I have to pay attention to it though. I can understand why it exists but what is really scary is the fact that, when something goes wrong, you have almost no control on it! Your case is a good example: without your knowledge you’re being charged, and in the end, it could lead to negative points to your history. I had something similar with one credit card. I am now extremely wary of paying in time… Read more »

Tim
Tim
13 years ago

(sorry for the double post)

Do you know if there is any reason why we can’t access our credit score for free (like 3 times a year with the report for example)?
Just that is broken in this system: why do we have to pay to get our score when it affects so many things in your life (getting an apartment, buying a car, a house…)?

Elissa
Elissa
13 years ago

I found that mailing very “informative” letters to companies that like to make up stuff works far better than a phone call. My first experience was with SallieMae and the 5 phone calls a day I was receiving from them. At first I was worried that something was wrong with my account with them (student loans, what a joy) because they were leaving messages for some guy named Larry. I called them about it and they explained that my number was on his account, so I politely asked them to remove it because it was incorrect and they politely said… Read more »

Dalvenjah FoxFire
Dalvenjah FoxFire
13 years ago

I’ve been through something similar to this, too. In my case it was a DSL company that had gone through a series of mergers and acquisitions; at some point some company they bought added some form of hosting service to our account (that we never used and were never told about) that was free while we had the connection with them, but as soon as we cancelled turned into a $25/month charge for which they kept billing us, despite the fact that to cancel the original connection we had to send in a letter saying “Please cancel all of the… Read more »

M
M
13 years ago

The gf and I are currently experiencing the same situation. Apparently, she has a $99 “debt” showing up on her Experian credit report from Sprint. Supposedly this account had been opened July of 2005. We already were together at this point, and I can assure you she has never acquired any type of service at all from them at the time. She did have a Sprint account from 2002 or something like that but she had closed that account a long time ago, with no unpaid balances. She called Sprint and they were being very vague about it, saying “they… Read more »

Savvy Steward
Savvy Steward
13 years ago

I would send a formal complaint to Sprint. That is ridiculous. I’m sure they have a link on their website, or use PlanetFeedback.com.

Nick P
Nick P
13 years ago

I’m so glad its not just me! Although I’m in the UK, I’m going through exactly the same thing with my old broadband provider. Due to incredibly bad service and getting nowhere with their customer service I switched to another company in November last year. They billed me in December, so I rang, navigated the phone menus, got an operator, and told them I no longer used their service. They apologised and told me they would close the account. So I was mildly surprised when in January I get billed again! So once again I navigated the phone menus, got… Read more »

moltar
moltar
13 years ago

How about billing teh CEO of Sprint and then reporting him to the credit thingy (can’t spell it).

Carter
Carter
13 years ago

This sounds like something you should share with Consumerist.com. They’re reported on/investigated a number of similar stories and someone there may have some wisdom to share.

Robert Nagle
Robert Nagle
13 years ago

First mistake: Calling them on the phone. You have no paper trail of having notified them. Also, they have no obligation to follow anything they have said over the phone. My advice: send a certified letter stating your complaint; make it no longer than two sentences. A simple denial is sufficient. Theft of identity issues are rampant these days. I’ve been going through two, one with ATT, another with Tmobile. The main problem (aside from the threat to your credit score) is that the burden of proving your innocence requires a significant investment of your time. They will typically send… Read more »

Robert Nagle
Robert Nagle
13 years ago

I should add the punch line of my horror stories: When I tried to set up DSL with ATT (the only choice in my new apartment), ATT claimed I owed them $200 and refused to provide a landline. They never notified me about it and demanded the $200 before they’d give me Internet service. I could choose somebody else for DSL, but ATT could prevent me from obtaining a landline. SO i had to pay and then beg for them to refund the money later. And guess what–they took 6 months to “realize” they were wrong. Second case is Tmobile;… Read more »

Alison
Alison
13 years ago

I had a similar problem with the now-defunct WorldCom Wireless (which we called WorldCom Brainless at our house). I first got a postcard from them thanking me for my new account. Since I’d never opened an account, I wanted to inform them of their mistake, but there was no phone number, e-mail, or mailing address on the card. I was able to find a number for their so-called Customer Service Dept., which assured me that the matter was taken care of. Then I received the first bill. I called the billing number, was once again assured that the matter was… Read more »

Sam
Sam
13 years ago

Sadly, I actually believe that large corps and some smaller ones (i.e. my local utility co.) are billing for misc. charges that the customer has not incurred. For example, DirecTv provides certain kinds of repairs (free of charge) under my plan. I needed a repair, they came out fixed the dish, I had confirmed more than once that it was a covered repair but I ended up with a $40 charge on my bill. When I called to challenge the bill they agreed I was charged in error and promptly took the charge off my bill. But, my question is… Read more »

zuzu
zuzu
13 years ago

Remember “slamming”? The practice of changing your long-distance provider without your consent? If I’m not mistaken, that was outlawed sometime in the mid-to-late 90s.

Could be you did have an account with Sprint at some point, but never knew it.

Ryan
Ryan
13 years ago

One more comment for this post… large corporations exploit the incompetence of their workforce, and the inefficiencies of large bureaucracies, for profit. If there’s a remote possibility that you can be charged for something, they will bill you for it, and rely on 1: the complacency of the consumer, 2: the maddening complexity and inflexibility of their own bureaucracy, and 3: the basic incompetence of their representatives, to wear you down into paying them, just to end the hassle. I have pretty personal experience with this, on both ends of the deal. Many times, it doesn’t matter how diligent, angry,… Read more »

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

Help? The AnnualCreditReport.com site is only available in the US. I lived in the US for 5 years and moved back to Canada 4 years ago. Now I’m worried that things are piling up on my credit report that I have no way of billing. This is the message from the web site: “The AnnualCreditReport.com website is only accessible through ISPs (Internet Service Providers) located within the United States and its territories.”
Short of a trip to the US any ideas on getting my US-based credit report from Canada?

Peter
Peter
13 years ago

A little off-topic question. Would a company really bother reporting a $25 delinquency to collections and would it really show up on a credit report? I do not see utilities and other small creditors on my credit report only big things like mortgages, credit cards and car loans.

Even if they did report it, would a $25 phone delinquency be treated differently than a missed mortgage payment or is a delinquency a delinquency regardless of the creditor and amount?

fred
fred
13 years ago

The post office forwards your first class mail for 12 months. Not all mail is forwardable. But if you are notifying your correspondents the requested 4-6 weeks prior to moving there should be no mail (that you want) going to your old address even 2 months after you move.

Cat
Cat
13 years ago

Sadly enough, I had the same problem with sprint back in the 90s. I was being billed based on a phone number I had in college but not had Sprint service at the time they were billing me for. Many letters and phone calls (a few rather brutal on my part) finally cleared it up. I have found that asking to speak to a manager can help. My favorite sentence is “I’d like to speak to a manager, I’m going to chew out someone and you aren’t getting paid enough” – it usually works.

cribcage
cribcage
13 years ago

I’m shocked that a company with which I have no relationship can just start billing me out-of-the-blue. Years ago, I read an article about a guy who tried this as an experiment. He bought one of those blank invoice pads from Staples and just picked a couple dozen companies out of the Yellow Pages and mailed them generic, nondescript invoices. Roughly half the companies sent back checks. Except for obscene material, you can mail just about anything to anybody. It’s like the old joke: “Can I ask a favor? Well, you can ask…” Once, after being involved in an automobile… Read more »

Adrian
Adrian
13 years ago

I got the exact same thing from Sprint…only when I called and they said it was an error blah blah blah that was the end of it….never got a bill again for a stupid charge.

Flora
Flora
13 years ago

Wow, this all reminds me of a wonderful story we heard on This American Life: On Hold, No One Can Hear You Scream. “This American Life Senior Producer Julie Snyder found herself in a ten-month battle with her phone company (MCI Worldcom), which had overcharged her $946.36. She spent hours on hold, in a bureaucratic nowhere. No one seemed able to fix her problem, and there was no way she could make the company pay her back for all her lost time and aggravation. Finally, she enlists the aid of the national media. Specifically, This American Life host Ira Glass.”… Read more »

C
C
13 years ago

This sort of garbage is not indicative of large corporations only. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration has been trying to pull the same heavy handed tyrannical crap on me for 4 years now. THEY made a mistake that resulted in me owing them over $100. I have repeatedly tried to resolve it – from another state across the country, mind you. They have left me messages AT WORK – a number that was never given to them and have sent me multiple notices in the mail – to an address that was never provided to them. But they found me… Read more »

anne
anne
13 years ago

My boyfriend canceled his wireless account with Sprint several years ago, but continued to get bills for months afterwards. He called them 6 times and was told every single time that they’d closed the account and he wouldn’t get another bill. Maddening.

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

Something similar happened to my mother several years ago. She received a credit card statement for a card she had canceled about five years earlier. When she called and asked why she received a statement, the customer service person said that there was a new charge, even though her card had in fact been canceled, per her request, years before. They explained that somehow, companies can force charges (if anyone else has heard of this, I would be interested to find out about it) and somehow, someone who was living in our old house ordered something from a catalog in… Read more »

M
M
13 years ago

I am in no way advocating the many pitfalls of our 3 credit bureaus, however, I am glad there are 3 instead of 1 because it thwarts monopoly attempts. Although sometimes companies are on the fence when it comes to consumer rights and the favor of big business, with 3 they have the right to use whichever bureau they want- furthering free enterprise.

Gayla
Gayla
13 years ago

Similar situation here with Sprint. Looking back through my records, I could not disprove the charge, so I agreed to pay it. However, I would NOT agree to pay it with a check by phone or my debit card – I mailed a check. And all OVER the check I wrote PAID IN FULL in BIG RED Letters. Across the bottom I wrote paid in full – close account promptly. Here I am three weeks later and they’ve yet to cash my check. I retained copies of the check as well as MADE them send me a letter stating that… Read more »

Carter Adler
Carter Adler
13 years ago

Andrej (comment #2) asked if there is a way to obtain your credit score for free. Although it’s far from ideal, there is a way to do this. There are a number of web sites selling “Credit monitoring” or “Credit protecting” services. I think these services are almost certainly a waste of money, however, many of them allow you to recieve your credit scores as part of the package, AND many of them will offer 30 days free. Just be sure to call and cancel! (Many allow you to sign up online, but require a phone call to cancel.) Also,… Read more »

Carter Adler
Carter Adler
13 years ago

I once had a very similar problem. I had gotten a subscription to Newsweek, and then decided not to renew it. Simple enough, I’ll just ignore the renewal notices, and they’ll stop sending the magazine, right? Three months later I started getting notices from their collection department. It turns out that some “nice” person at Newsweek noticed that I hadn’t returned any of the dozen renewal forms they mailed to me, and decided, as a “courtesy,” to save me the trouble by automatically renewing my subscription. (I know that there are some subscriptions that do this, but I make it… Read more »

Prince of Thrift
Prince of Thrift
13 years ago

a couple or 3 years ago I was getting simaler billings from sprint PCS. While I have had sprint 10 or more years ago on my land line,before I got rid of the crooks. I have never had their PCS (aka mobil) service and never would, the only mobile provider I have ever used is T-mobie (even before they were t-mobile, but any way I had to make numerous calls to sprint before they left me alone. I considered it stolen identity, but maybe as a previous poster said, it was Sprint theirselves.

mapgirl
mapgirl
13 years ago

It’s very late and I should be sleeping, but here’s the thing about all these telecom comments that bug me. 1) Did you ever try the Better Business Bureau? 2) Did you ever try the FCC? Working for a telecom that has a poor reputation for customer service, oh wait. All them do, nevermind… I recommend that you try the regulatory agencies that govern telecom companies and how they operate, as well as the consumer advocacy agencies that are out there. And if not, get the local TV station that has a consumer advocate on the air to show your… Read more »

Marc
Marc
13 years ago

I had bills just start appearing from Purolator courier service, now and then, over the years. Every time they’d say it would be dealt with, and it wouldn’t, and it would end up in credit collection. It was only after paying about $150 for a lawyer to settle the matter (by corresponding to their corporation) that it was discovered that some dentist was sometimes using a number associated with some sort of account I had been given because of a cell phone I had returned due to a recall. I could have sued for costs and aggravation I guess, but… Read more »

Josh
Josh
13 years ago

My wife has had an American Express card, which I have no affiliation with. Somehow, AMEX charged MY checking account for HER bill, causing me to overdraft my account. My bank confirmed that the charges were unauthorized, so basically, AMEX stole from me!
I’ve since closed the checking account and am in the process now of taking legal action.

Rebecca
Rebecca
12 years ago

Exact same thing happened to me – I was billed by AT&T for DSL service I had never had. In fact, I didn’t even have a phone line with which to *receive* DSL service. They billed me for 6 months, each time promising to close the account, and eventually sent it to a collection agency. It was a nightmare.

Irene
Irene
12 years ago

Similar scary story: watch out for AT&T! I won’t even get into the many hours I spent on the phone with them in 2003 for erroneous charges on my cell phone, which did end up at a collection agency. Same thing, they would connect me to one after another agent, promising to remove the charges, yet no one could resolve the matter, in spite of my constant calls and letters. Major bureaucratic nightmare. Result was, I ended up paying the collection agency. A few years later they merged with SBCGlobal, my land line, then Cingular, my cell phone company, and… Read more »

Sandra
Sandra
11 years ago

Since I’ve been around longer than the rest of you, I’ve had a bit more experience with AT&T.

I can tell you that they love to “slam” people. (Don’t know what it’s called now.) One day I woke up and had them as a long distance provider. I fixed all their business. I no longer have long distance.

This type of thing has been a scam for a long time. I don’t know if they’re still doing it. The point is that their company is one of the biggest crooks on Earth.

Lee
Lee
11 years ago

Is there way to get free Credit Score ?

I used to get free with my WaMu credit card but now it’s Chase Card and they have removed that service.

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