I almost put T-Mobile in the same category as Charter Communications, insurance companies, and other monopolistic utility companies that maximize profit through, a phalanx of mouth-breathing customer service drones, labyrinthine technicalities, flimsy legal authority and general hassle.
My cell phone provider had been SunCom since around 2002 when I was lured to them with the "unplan." This promotional plan provided unlimited minutes so long as I made phone calls from within a predefined area (about a 200 mile radius around Greenville). What if you are outside that radius, you ask? Oh, they had me covered because I was allowed 300 overflow minutes before the regular roaming fees applied. It was almost too good to be true. All for the low rate of $49 per month.
I was truly a loyal customer. Spurning the offers of other companies while my friends hopped from carrier to carrier and gadget to gadget. I swore up and down that I would never change. I was relaxed with the knowledge that I wouldn't get "dinged" with a spike in my bill. It was always a steady $57.00 (once all the taxes and other standard nickel and dime bullshit was added in).
"Hey Evan, why don't you have an iPhone or a Blackberry?"
"Ha! And give up my unplan? PAH-LEEEZE."
Then a few months ago SunCom was bought out by T-Mobile. And I held my breath as several notices from SunCom came in the mail explaining the regime change.
My first bill was paid automatically. I assumed the auto-pay I had setup with SunCom had transferred without a hitch. Good sign. I was thinking, "Hey, maybe this will be a benevolent dictatorship"
Then I received my next bill: $97.15. What. The. Roaming fees? Roaming? I haven't had a roaming charge since I was in college. Which is starting to be a long time ago. There must have been some sort of mistake. I'll just call up the customer support line and see what the deal is...
I begin by quickly explaining how the "unplan" works to the representative. The rest is a paraphrased transcript:
REP: "When T-mobile bought SunCom they changed the plan. No longer will T-Mobile offer the 300 spill over roaming minutes per month. And in return we've increased the calling radius to all of SC, NC, GA, and VA."
ME: "Wait. You changed my plan and didn't tell me?"
REP: "We sent you a letter"
ME: "I never received this letter. The first piece of mail I received from T-mobile was a bill."
REP: "We sent it"
ME: "You may have, but I never received it. Can you re-send me this letter?"
REP: "Let me check. I don't think so because you're plan is grandfathered in, we don't have standard mail for those."
A few seconds pass. I start processing the situation. If they can't send me a letter that has the details of my new plan how can I be responsible for the charges? And furthermore, given the hoops that SunCom had jumped through in the past to honor my grandfathered contract, how is it possible for T-Mobile to change terms without me signing a new contract? Doesn't this void my old contract? And most importantly, if I have no clear terms, can't they just charge me whatever they want?
REP: "Sir? I'm sorry we can't re-send you anything regarding the details of your current plan."
ME: "Really? So, as of right now I have no idea what plan I have or what you may have changed. And I have no way of finding out this information short of reverse engineering the bills that you send me?
REP: "Sir. We can can offer you an upgrade you to another plan."
ME: "Can you remove the $50.85 from this bill for roaming charges?"
REP "No, those charges are valid"
ME: "Valid? To whom? Certainly not valid to me. Who should I talk to if I want to contest those charges? Heck, I want to contest this whole situation. Who do I need to speak with to get this cleared up?"
ME: "Ok, I'd like to contest these charges"
REP: "They're valid."
ME: "What does that even mean? Valid."
REP: "They're valid charges in the system"
ME: "For one thing, you can't define a word using the same word. For another, you can't possibly be qualified to deal with this situation, can I speak with someone else. Your manager perhaps?"
REP: "She's going to tell you the same thing. We can't do anything about your bill"
ME: "Ok. This is useless. Let me research my options here and get back with you."
She spewed a canned salutation and something about a merry Christmas then hung up.
I decided to call back after a few minutes to get a hold of someone else who maybe didn't suck so hard. So I do that. I'll spare you the transcript. But the next representative was much nicer, apologetic, and seemed to empathize with my situation more. Even still, she couldn't help me.
So I asked if they would cancel my service and I was quickly switched over to a loss recovery person. I gave her my spiel and then gave her time to sell me on a solution. Her sales pitch was pathetic. I told her as much and said, "at this point, even if you offer me the best plan you have in your bag of tricks, I'd prefer to cancel my service on principle alone."
Then she tells me -- and this is like a headbutt to the solar plexus -- "your contract doesn't end until 2010." Evidently, when I bought my new phone in June (which I hate by the way) it auto-renewed my contract for two more years. If I want to break the contract it will be $200.
At this point now, I'm simultaneously mourning the loss of the "unplan" and seething with anger at T-Mobile, at the ignorant customer service representative, and my own naivety for thinking T-Mobile might not be a team of vampires. I can't do anything but laugh and hang up. This is like something out of the Twighlight Zone. Guantanamo Prison for cell phone service where I don't have rights, I can't see a judge, and the prison guards poke at me with snarky comments about the validity of roaming charges.
My current plan is to go to a T-Mobile store location and see if a sales manager will/can:
But if the outcome of this meeting is not positive, then what should I do?
Shouldn't I have had to literally sign a new contract with T-Mobile if they couldn't honor the previous contract I had with SunCom? Do I have a legal leg to stand on? Is it worth pursuing with the FCC or BBB? Should I pay the $200 to break the contract and get away from this situation? Should I just keep calling customer service until they are tired of hearing my voice? Should I scrap my phone and start using a HAM or CB radio?
Hooray! I made some progress. Short of it is: T-Mobile wiped the $50 of erroneous roaming charges from my last bill and upgraded my account to "preferred wireless," essentially dropping my roaming rate from $0.45 / minute to $0.10 / minute. I wrote the long version of the story in the comments below if you're interested..