Adventures in Cell Phone Hell


If you’ve done any studies in macroeconomics, then you know that capitalism is not, in and of itself, a perfect and foolproof system. When a company is able to develop a monopoly on something, particularly a product or service that is vital to the people in a community, then there’s a great risk of harm simply because the monopolistic company can set whatever price they want on their product or service, since there aren’t competing companies to keep a check on rising prices; similar problems exist with product quality and customer service. This is why laws against monopolies, or laws that tightly regulate a company that has a monopoly, generally don’t provoke that much controversy. (There are always those who are so laissez-faire that they think monopolies should be unregulated as they’re a natural result of market forces, but even among the far-right they’re relatively few.)

A problem arises, however, when a product or service is only being provided by a few large companies, because those companies can then get together and agree to raise prices or lower service together in order to rake in even more money. Even though there isn’t one big company holding a monopoly in the market, this collusion of companies effectively creates all the same problems that a single monopolistic company can cause. This is why there are laws against companies overtly colluding in this way to fix the market, and again, even conservative economists tend to see these laws as being beneficial for both the market and society as a whole. A difficulty arises, though, when this collusion isn’t happening through easily-documented emails or meetings in smoke-filled rooms, and the rapid technological changes in our world in the past few decades have created possibilities for companies to effectively collude in ways that are impossible to empirically prove.

The philosophies and politics of 21st century economic collusion merit their own treatment — possibly even book-length — but I bring them up here just as a background as to why I can’t freaking stand cell phone companies any longer. Strap yourselves in, because this is gonna be a long ride.

I got my first cell phone three days after the 09.11 attacks, and that was no accident; I’d just started back at college full-time late that August, and quickly noticed how many students around me had cell phones. I didn’t feel like I really needed one at first, but after 09.11 I thought it was best to have one on me just in case. A few months later, when a family member called my cell phone to tell me to stop driving my car because it had leaked transmission fluid onto our driveway, I’m sure that alone saved me at least a thousand dollars. Cell phones are both incredible tools and incredible toys, and I’d like to think that I use mine to enhance my productivity rather than destroy it. I could be wrong on that, though.

My first phone was one of those old Nokia bricks, and I got service through Verizon because that was what I was offered when I walked into Radio Shack that day. A couple of years later, once my phone started glitching, I switched to Virgin Mobile, sticking with their barebones plans where I only had to pay about $20 or $30 every few months to buy minutes that I hardly ever used. In 2010, though, I bit the bullet and went the smartphone route, which meant paying more money every month, and my previously good experiences with Virgin Mobile soon evaporated when I found out, over a course of several months, that all their smartphones were crap. (Also, despite living right next to one of the biggest highway interchanges in Toledo, I often got zero bars of service at my house, especially on the ground floor.)

I’d wanted to change providers for a long time now, but it was only about a month ago that I was ready to take the plunge. I knew I wanted a Nexus 5 (especially after the troubling initial reviews of the Nexus 6 came out), so I did some comparison shopping. T-Mobile not only sold that phone, but they also offered a monthly service plan that was perfect for me — only 100 minutes per month, but lots of data — and it was even cheaper than what I’d been paying at Virgin Mobile. I thought about it for a while, then decided to go ahead and take the plunge, ordering the phone through T-Mobile’s website.

Once the phone got here I was quick to try to register it, but during the registration process I was told that I’d have to wait a few days for my old Virgin Mobile number to transfer over. I still had over a week to go on my final Virgin Mobile month, so I didn’t have a problem with this. T-Mobile’s website also wouldn’t recognize the PIN number on the prepaid service card that came with my phone, although it seemed to credit my account after I gave them my credit card number to pay for an additional month. I waited a couple of days, hopeful that my new phone — which was getting even worse service at my house  than my Virgin Mobile phones, but T-Mobile was in the process of adding wi-fi phone service that would alleviate that problem — would soon be ready and raring to go.

A couple of days after registering my phone, though, I got a couple of voicemails on my Virgin Mobile phone that were so garbled that they sounded like something out of a horror film. I only knew they were from T-Mobile by googling the caller ID number. I joked about this on my Twitter, which prompted a response from T-Mobile’s customer service Twitter account. Over the next couple of days we sent direct messages back and forth to each other, with me providing all the numbers I’d had to input during registration, until they said that they didn’t have my SIM card number in their system and I’d need to call their activations department to get things straightened out. (I’d tried starting the registration process all over again, but their website wouldn’t let me get past the first step, so I have to assume something from my initial registration attempt remained in the system.)

When I tried to call T-Mobile, though, I was forced into a loop where their system kept asking me for my phone number, then saying they didn’t recognize it, whether I spoke it out or inputted it in via my phone’s keypad. T-Mobile’s customer service Twitter gave me a second number to call, but that just resulted in the same problem. In the meantime I’d used up nearly all my minutes on my old Virgin Mobile phone, so I wound up having to buy Skype credit and calling T-Mobile that way, and the one time, the one time I got through to an actual human being, she promptly transferred me to someone who greeted me in Punjabi. I told T-Mobile’s customer service Twitter that I was on the verge of tears (which I was), and could I just please go to one of their stores and have their employees figure this out for me. They said that would be okay, and so I did.

I was greeted at their store by four employees who did not exactly inspire confidence that they would be able to help me. After about ten minutes of explaining what had happened (because they seemed to forget what I told them fifteen seconds after I said it), they started the activation process from scratch. When I told them what monthly plan I wanted, though, they laughed and said that they didn’t offer anything like that plan. My face reddening and my pulse quickening, I told them that I’d signed up for that plan through their website just that past week. (It’s still on T-Mobile’s website, the $30 per month plan about two-thirds of the way down the page.)

One of the workers at the store finally put it all together, and explained to me that I hadn’t bought a T-Mobile phone, but a Walmart phone, and that I needed to go to the nearby Walmart to have them activate my phone. He also explained that as it was going to be signed up through Walmart, I’d only have access to about half of T-Mobile’s towers for service. (Again, I remind you that I was getting nearly zero service at my house.) Now, setting aside the fact that I boycott Walmart for a moment, at no time in this process prior to this point had I been told I would have anything to do with Walmart. I bought the phone through T-Mobile’s website, and at no point was told this would be a Walmart phone or that I’d be getting Walmart service. My package came with a T-Mobile return address and T-Mobile’s logo all over the box and everything inside it. Walmart, and the name of their cell phone service, was never on anything I received or looked at.

Needless to say, I was through with T-Mobile at that point. After another quick round of comparison shopping (because time was running out on my final month of Virgin Mobile service), I decided to go with AT&T for my service provider, even though I’d be paying $10 a month more than I had with Virgin Mobile. (Remember, I’d started this process thinking I was about to lower my monthly payments.) I’d also have to get a plan with not much data (which I use) and unlimited minutes (which I didn’t need). I went to an AT&T store near my house and explained things there, and one of the employees there got my phone activated on their network.

Unfortunately, I was far from getting screwed over at that point. For one thing, the employee at the store didn’t transfer my old number over, and a quick perusal through AT&T’s website confirmed that I would need to do a whole new activation (and pay another $45 to start service on my “new” old number). Secondly, after telling the employee what plan I wanted, he signed me up for a different plan where the data package was only good on non-smartphones. This meant that I couldn’t use data on my phone at all except for wi-fi, and mobile data is what I most often use my cell phone for.

By this point I just wanted to get everything over with, so I went to the most upscale AT&T store in the area and explained to them what had happened, albeit without heaping on the poor employee there the 37,129 swear words I so wanted to let loose to describe my frustration at this whole process. He explained to me that he could get my phone going on my old number, and after not a small amount of time working through various problems, he gave me back my phone and said it would receive calls on my old number soon, which it did. At that point I had to rush to get to campus to teach my first class of the day, so I thanked him and ran off.

When I got to campus, though, I quickly found out that even though I told that employee several times about the mix-up with  at the other AT&T store with them signing me up for a data plan that wouldn’t even work on my phone, and told him exactly what plan I wanted to be on, he put me on the same plan that wouldn’t let me use any mobile data. By this point I basically had no choice to pay $45 to change my plan to the one that would let me use mobile data, so I did that, but I tweeted AT&T’s customer service and told them that I expected a $45 service credit because they’d now made the same mistake twice and I had been very specific to that second employee about the plan I wanted. The person on AT&T’s customer service Twitter then gave me a $45 service credit — on the first account they’d set up, that I was no longer using because my phone was now operating on my old number.

I desperately, desperately want to give you a happy ending to this story. I want to tell you that I mustered the reserves of my energy and patience, launched a huge campaign and got everything set right. I want to tell you that I got everything I paid for, or at least close to it. The reality, sadly, is that I’ve just given up. I have a working Nexus 5 now — with mobile data — and I actually get decent reception at my house. I just had to pay T-Mobile $50 more for the phone than I would have paid if I’d bought it directly from Google, then $60 for two months of service that I never used one second of (funny how they didn’t recognize my SIM card number or my phone number, but my credit card number went through perfectly), to say nothing of the two screen protectors I bought that both fell off of my phone within five days of applying  them. Then I had to pay AT&T $90 for two botched activations to finally get my phone working the way it should have worked after I left that first store.

This should be completely unacceptable. This should be the kind of story that angers everyone who reads it. This should be the kind of story that has both T-Mobile and AT&T bending over backwards to rectify all the mistakes they made. That’s not going to happen. I’ve had too many dealings with them, and Virgin Mobile, and other companies in the past few years, to expect that this blog is going to do anything more than elicit a shrug of the shoulders from some of you. This kind of gross incompetence, of screwing over a customer repeatedly, has become so commonplace in recent years that it’s pretty much to be expected, and even with my capacity for indignant outrage, I’m just spent at this point. I no longer have the capabilities — mental, emotional, fiscal, you name it — to fight this any longer, to try to recover any of the money I lost thanks to false advertising and incompetence, and the worst part is that I’m damned sure that this is exactly what all these companies want.

We’re twenty years removed now from the Stella Liebeck “hot coffee lawsuit” that conservatives mischaracterized and outright lied about in order to make the American public think that there was this huge wave of dishonest people out there trying to extort huge amounts of money from saintly American corporations through bogus and frivolous lawsuits, and many of the misconceptions and conservative lies about that case still persist two decades later. More recently, though, it’s been hard to ignore a rash of complaints on social media from people in (ironically enough) McJobs that people are inventing bad customer service experiences in order to get free gift cards from companies eager to avoid having those experiences published on Facebook and the like. Certainly there are some people doing that, just like some people do file frivolous lawsuits against companies to try to get money out of them, but these have been characterized as the norm, to the point where when companies do engage in genuine bad behaviour or wrongdoing, it’s next to impossible both legally and culturally for wronged consumers to get justice.

What this means is that companies now know they can pretty much get away with whatever they want when it comes to mistreating customers, simply because all of them have now recognized that if they all act like jerks, customers will likely stick with them anyway because they won’t have anywhere else to go. Finding the right company to do business with is now no longer a matter of determining which one will provide the best product or service, but which one will screw you over less often than the others. If everyone else is going to be an asshole, then you can get away with being an asshole too, just as long as you aren’t too much more of an asshole than everyone else. This isn’t the dictionary definition of collusion, but in practice it’s pretty damn close, and we all suffer from it just as much as we would if it were a group of companies, or a single company, manipulating the market to screw us over.

As for me, I may be out a whole lot of money I never intended to spend for service that I never got, but at least my phone fucking works. Maybe that should be AT&T’s next advertising slogan: “At Least Your Phone Fucking Works.” These days, that’s a pretty high level of customer service.

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