Business

A cacophony of woe over indecipherable AT&T bill

Economy, Business and FinanceColumnTelevision IndustryLaws and LegislationAT&T Corp.PoetryDemocracy
Anyone would be bamboozled by all the accounting legerdemain
Telecom companies should be required to break down their bills in plain English

In "The Sound of Music," Charmian Carr played the eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, the one who sings "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

Carr is now 71 and she's going on about AT&T.

"I just don't understand their billing," she told me, exasperated. "They give you one price, and then they charge you another."

Let me just say right here that when I get a call out of the blue from a cast member of "The Sound of Music," I jump to attention. I'm a sucker for classic movie musicals.

Moreover, I receive complaints almost every day from consumers who say their phone, cable and satellite bills are too darn hard to decipher.

Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group, said it appears that telecom companies go out of their way to make it difficult for customers to know what they're paying for.

"Consumers are less likely to challenge a fee or cancel an optional service if they don't understand their options," she said.

Carr had been getting her phone and Internet service from AT&T and her TV from DirecTV. She saw an ad for AT&T's broadband U-verse service that bundled everything together for a lower total price, so she gave the company a call.

"They told me it would be $172 a month for phone, Internet and TV," Carr said. "I asked them three times to confirm that price, and three times they said it would be $172 a month."

So "My Favorite Things" wasn't her first thought when an estimated bill arrived for her first month of U-verse.

It showed that Carr would receive $71 in "discounts/promotions," but would still face $190 in monthly recurring charges, plus another $16.33 in "one-time charges/credits."

Thus, the estimate said, her first U-verse bill would be for $206.33, which was 20% higher than what she'd been quoted.

Also, that $206.33 figure was "exclusive of standard taxes/fees," which of course would raise the monthly cost even higher. The estimated bill didn't say how much those standard taxes and fees would be.

Before I get to AT&T's response, let's look at what a customer is up against. In Carr's case, she had to grapple with a math-quiz worth of numbers in trying to navigate AT&T's itemized breakdown of charges.

I won't waste space with all 41 line items on the bill estimate, some adding to the monthly cost, others subtracting from it. Anyone would be bamboozled by all the accounting legerdemain.

What jumped out for me was the estimate's combined $20.93 in monthly "surcharges and other fees" for U-verse phone and TV service, plus another $44.25 in combined "government fees and taxes."

What surcharges? What other fees? What government fees and taxes?

You can go to AT&T's website, where you'll find a page titled "Understanding Your U-verse Bill." But it offers no detailed information on surcharges, fees and taxes.

In Carr's case, she was left to simply trust AT&T that more than a quarter of her estimated bill reflected legitimate costs and wasn't some sort of corporate money grab.

I shared the bill estimate with Georgia Taylor, an AT&T spokeswoman, who acknowledged that she could "see how this would be overwhelming for some people."

She said actual bills, as opposed to estimates, are more comprehensive in their presentation of charges. She showed me a sample bill to support her point.

It included a listing for "government fees and taxes," which, presumably, represent fees and taxes imposed by government entities. What, then, should customers make of the separate listing of "surcharges and other fees"?

These include a federal Universal Service Fund charge, which is intended to help fund phone and broadband Internet service to all homes. Phone companies providing interstate service are required to contribute to federal coffers.

They're allowed to pass this cost along to customers, but they don't have to. This charge is entirely at AT&T's discretion, although the company's bill doesn't make that clear.

Then there's the regulatory cost recovery charge, which sounds official but is, in fact, AT&T's way of passing along its costs of complying with regulations, which some might think would be a normal business expense and not something customers should be saddled with.

Again, these are discretionary fees on the part of AT&T and most other telecom providers. These companies include them on bills because they can, not because they have to.

The answer seems obvious. Telecom companies should be required to break down their bills in plain English, making clear what each charge or credit is for, as well as spelling out which charges are required by government entities and which ones are from the company.

Bills also should include the Web address of a site where customers can obtain a more detailed accounting of statements, with plain-English explanations of each fee and tax.

The Federal Communication Commission has so-called truth-in-billing rules that require "non-misleading, plain language" on phone bills. But this isn't good enough.

All telecom bills should be required to be truthful, and that includes honest explanations of what you're paying for.

As for Carr, Taylor said it's possible that AT&T's service rep wasn't as straightforward as possible about the taxes, charges and fees she'd face, which is why her estimated bill was higher than the figure she'd been repeatedly quoted.

"We're sorry about the confusion," Taylor said. "We'll honor the amount that she heard."

A happy ending. Just like in the movies.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Economy, Business and FinanceColumnTelevision IndustryLaws and LegislationAT&T Corp.PoetryDemocracy
Comments
Loading