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Verizon puts cellphone customer through the wringer

The company tries to hold an Aliso Viejo man accountable for $10,000 worth of alleged Internet access in a month. It eventually admits a billing error.

June 10, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

We've all found unexpected charges on our phone bills at one time or another. But nothing compares with the nearly $10,000 hit that Aliso Viejo resident Mark Elliot took from Verizon Wireless.

And even though it seems pretty obvious this had to be a mistake on somebody's part, Verizon's first instinct was to stick to its guns.

"We believe in the accuracy of the charges," Ken Muche, a company spokesman, told me after checking into Elliot's situation.

The company would eventually back down, but not before wiping out Elliot's checking account. More on that in a moment.

Elliot's cellphone nightmare began last week when he received a notice from Bank of America saying a payment had bounced on his online bill-pay service. He looked into it and discovered that Verizon was trying to charge him $9,993.88 for his April bill.

"I practically had a heart attack," Elliot, 56, told me. "Nearly 10 grand in cellphone costs? How could that be?"

He called Verizon. Elliot said a service rep laughed when she accessed his bill and agreed that it had to be an error. She said the company would drop the charge.

Then another Verizon rep called over the weekend. She said the company had double-checked its records. The bill stands. Elliot would have to pay up.

"The vibe I got from her was like I was some kind of criminal," he recalled. "I told her this couldn't be real. Who gets charged $10,000 for cellphone use? But she said I had to pay."

The bill showed $182.96 in monthly access charges, $5.17 in taxes and fees . . . and $9,805.75 in wireless Internet activity.

According to the bill, Elliot used his cellphone to upload, download or otherwise access more than 44,000 megabytes worth of data in a single month.

That's the equivalent of downloading about 11,000 songs from iTunes or 60 full-length movies.

Now, it's possible that Elliot is some kind of deranged Internet hog who spent the month squirreling away copies of "The Lord of the Rings," "Lawrence of Arabia" and all 17 episodes of "The Prisoner." But I doubt it.

"I'm a mountain climber," he said. "When I'm not working as a computer consultant, that's what I'm doing. I don't play on my computer for fun."

Also, guys who are running some kind of Internet scam typically don't turn to people like me, hand over their phone bills and bank records and agree to have their name run in the newspaper. That's just asking for trouble if you're not on the level.

So I pressed Verizon to explain how somebody could run up almost $10,000 in cellphone charges in just one month, especially when that customer's bills show no other unusual activity.

Muche said he couldn't address Elliot's case in particular. But generally speaking, a bill like this could happen if someone was using their cellphone as a wireless modem for their laptop, and if that person was, say, running streaming video online all day or playing a graphic-heavy game for hours on end.

Elliot laughed at both suggestions. "I don't do either of those things," he said.

In fact, he said he has hooked up his laptop to his cellphone only once or twice to access a client's network or check the weather before a mountain climbing trip.

"The thing I use to connect my phone to my computer mostly sits in the glove compartment gathering dust."

Elliot figured his cellphone account had to have been hijacked by some hacker, who spent April stocking up on thousands of music or movie files. But Verizon refused to even consider that notion.

The company told him that the activity was on his account and that was all there was to it. Ten thousand dollars, please.

By Monday night, however, Verizon execs seem to have realized they had it wrong -- and were about to have the whole episode detailed in the media.

Elliot said a high-ranking company official called him to say that the charge was being dropped -- for real this time.

"It was an Olympic gold medal backstroke performance," he said. "She was as deferential as any corporate person I've ever spoken with in my life."

Case closed? Not yet.

Elliot woke up Tuesday morning to another notice from BofA saying something was amiss with his account. Turns out Verizon had once again billed his account for the entire $9,993.88 -- and this time BofA paid the bill.

This resulted in Elliot losing the $781 he had in his checking account and then owing more than $9,200 to the bank.

So I contacted BofA. Tara Burke, a bank spokeswoman, said the way the online bill-pay system works is that if insufficient funds exist in an account, the first two attempts by a business to withdraw funds will be rejected.

But if the business tries a third time, the transaction will be processed.

"This is a standard process," Burke said. "The person might have funds coming in, we don't know."

In any case, a BofA official contacted Verizon, and the cellphone company promised to return the cash to Elliot's checking account by today. "The situation has been rectified," Burke said.

Indeed, Elliot said he got a conference call late Tuesday from several Verizon execs, who acknowledged that it looked like his cellphone service had been hacked. "They fell all over themselves apologizing," he said.

And it turns out yet another catastrophe was avoided. In combing through his bank records to deal with Verizon and BofA, Elliot said he discovered that no car payments had been deducted from his account for several months. Apparently there was some snafu with the online bill pay setup.

"If it wasn't for this whole thing, my car might have been repossessed," Elliot said.

I love happy endings.

--

David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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