Blogs > Jim Collins' Editor's Notebook

Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Don't miss your chance to spot costly errors on phone bills

There’s something terribly romantic and adventurous about being involved in a class-action lawsuit. It’s just you and a few thousand people you’ve never met ganging up on some huge corporate entity with the intent of extracting anywhere from a few dollars to a few million.

I had a chance to cash in just a few years ago, but I chose not to take part. I was advised later by Pat Perotti, the attorney who pursued the case, that I passed up about $400. Pity. That would have fed our animals for a month or so.

I am not a lawyer, so there is a good chance I don’t know what I’m talking about here. But let’s say, in round numbers, that settlement against the Grange Insurance Co. was in the neighborhood of $30 million. That is a very nice neighborhood.

Let’s also say about half the money was claimed by the injured parties. Well, that obviously leaves half of it unclaimed. So the company said to the court (I’m paraphrasing), “If they don’t want it, we’ll take it back.”

“Not so fast,” said Pat. “The winners will claim the rest in a cy pres action, and I will distribute it to charity.”

Pat prevailed in court, and he doled out millions of dollars to charities throughout the area. I remember going down to Channel 3 on a Friday morning and getting a huge check for Clothe-A-Child (my recollection is that it was for about $123,000). Pat gave even larger amounts to such beneficiaries as United Way of Lake County, Crossroads and dozens of others over several months.

You will find cy pres (pronounced “sigh pray”) in your local dictionary. It was new to me, too.
Imagine my surprise last week when I opened my bill from AT&T and discovered a yellow, 12-page folder informing me of a Class Action Settlement Notice.

“Whee!” I thought. “I’m rich.”

Well, I’m sure my entitlement would not enrich me, but even if it were for only, say, $400, why be too proud to turn it down?

I read on.

“You may have been billed for third-party charges over a period of months (on your phone bill) without having noticed it,” the notice said.

I knew exactly what Nwabueze (that must be a law firm) was talking about, and I’ve got news for Mr. Nwabueze. If everyone studied his bills as assiduously as I do, there would be no third-party billings, and fewer class-action lawsuits.

I had it happen twice on AT&T bills. The first time, I spotted a charge for $15 that I knew nothing of.

I called AT&T, got forwarded around the country and ended up talking to a very nice young man in Michigan who said there were some devious people who were charging for their stuff on phone bills, and AT&T dosen’t approve of it all. Next month I got a $15 credit on my phone bill.

Just a month ago, I got charges for $17.61 that I knew were bogus. I got on the phone again, landed in San Antonio, and got transferred to Christine in Oklahoma City (I hope she survived the tornado).

Those were long distance charges by MCI, she expalined. $16.50 plus tax.

“I don’t have long distance service,” I said. “I dropped it years ago because there is a $5 monthly fee for it, even if you don’t use it. The lady of the house and I make all our long distance calls on our cell phones.”

Christine said when I dropped long distance service, I didn’t put a block on it. That was news to me.
“Do you want me to block it?” she said. “Of course I do,” I replied. So she blocked it.

But I was curious. “How did MCI get into the act?” I wondered.

Other carriers, she said, scrounge around for business. MCI found seven long distance calls on our house phone (I have no idea how they got through) and had them stuck on our AT&T bill.

I am furious with MCI, but there is nothing I can do about its interference, although I consider it unethical. I told Christine I had never authorized MCI, or anybody else, to snoop into my phone bill or any other bill — never had, never would.

“I will issue you a credit,” said the lovely Christine. (Every company should have a Christine or two working for it.)

“Would you be so kind as to do that?” I asked.

“I already have,” she said. “It’s done.”

That was fast work. I appreciate it. And I don’t deserve any class action payments from AT&T because my losses have been covered.

Here’s my point. If you, or anybody else, pays any kind of a bill without looking it over and making sure you aren’t being stiffed, shame on you.

That goes for utility bills, credit card bills, or any other bill. If it’s not right, get on the phone. Start out by being nice. If that doesn’t work, raise holy hell.

But I didn’t need to resort to the latter tactic with AT&T. The folks there were so nice I almost apologized for asking for my money back. Almost.


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