Betty Howard was charged $110.80 by Verizon in March because she missed a few payments for her high-speed Internet service.
The fact that Howard had died three months earlier apparently wasn't a good enough excuse for not paying her bills.
This was the final insult for Howard's daughter-in-law, Marilynn Loveless, who'd been battling with the phone giant for months over what she termed broken promises and questionable bills, not to mention an inability to grasp that its former customer was no longer among the living.
"I don't like bullies," Loveless told me. "That's what this seemed to be. They bully you and bully you until they get what they want."
Verizon cut Howard's bill to $54.82 but then turned it over to a debt-collection firm. Loveless started getting calls from debt collectors trying to recover the cash from her dead mother-in-law.
"It's like Verizon never heard us," the Redlands resident said. "Something is clearly broken here."
What happened to Loveless, 54, should be a wake-up call for all businesses with service reps who follow mindless scripts rather than actually responding to the problems of customers. It's also a classic example of why so many consumers view large companies as inflexible and insensitive.
Verizon, not surprisingly, doesn't see things that way.
"In the vast majority of cases, customers are heard by our company," said Les Kumagai, a Verizon spokesman. "But there are circumstances where mistakes are made. No one is perfect."
Loveless said she wasn't looking for perfect. Just a reasonable level of professionalism.
Her mother-in-law had breast cancer and had been largely confined to her Loma Linda home for the last year.
Howard thought a wireless broadband Internet connection would help her stay connected to the outside world and encourage visitors, so Loveless contacted Verizon to set one up.
Several months passed and the Internet connection just couldn't be made. Loveless said she was finally told by a Verizon rep that Howard would need a Verizon phone account as well for broadband service.
So in September, Loveless ordered a package of services from Verizon on Howard's behalf, including broadband. And still, she said, there was no Net access.
In early December, Howard died. Loveless said she contacted Verizon a few days later and told the company to cancel all of Howard's services. She also instructed her card issuer to stop making payments to Verizon.
But the bills kept coming. In March, the bill for $110.80 arrived. Loveless said she again explained to Verizon that its customer was dead. So the company cut the bill to $54.82. When no payment was forthcoming, it turned over the account to a debt collector, I.C. System of Minnesota.
That's when Loveless called me. With a little prodding, Verizon took a closer look at the situation and discovered that Howard was apparently being double billed. That is, she was being billed for stand-alone Net access, which never worked, and also for Net access as part of her package of services, which also never worked.
Verizon's Kumagai told me the company would waive the $110.80 in outstanding charges for DSL service, including the $54.82 that was submitted to I.C. System. "That will be withdrawn," he said.
However, Kumagai said Howard still owed $81.26 for the service package, which Verizon, out of the goodness of its heart, would reduce to $42.75. And because the package was on Loveless' credit card, she was the one who now had to pay.
"That's outrageous," Loveless responded when told of Verizon's stance. "They just don't get the fact that they're charging for a service they never provided."
It took a while, but Verizon finally did get it. Kumagai called me back to say the company had decided to waive all charges related to Howard's account.
"Mistakes were made," he said. "We apologize."
I relayed this to Loveless, who said she appreciated that Verizon was at last owning up to shortcomings in its customer service.
"But it's obvious what's happening," she said. "They're trying to avoid a PR disaster."
That's undoubtedly true. But I'd like to think that Verizon has also learned from this episode and will show more respect to its customers in the future.
A good first step would be to empower its service reps — many of whom are overseas — to actually deal with specific issues, rather than follow scripts and hope a problem goes away.
Like I say, there's a reason many consumers view big companies as heartless and unbending. It's not because these businesses are misunderstood.
It's because their actions speak for themselves.