Tuesday, April 22, 2008

International Harassment, or Why AT&T Still Puts $$$ Ahead of Customer Service

Warning: Rant ahead...

Woke up at 6:30 this morning to a call on my cell. It was too early, so I let it go. Immediately rang again, but had stopped by the time I got to the phone. Immediately rang again in my hand. I noticed an unfamiliar 503 area code. Though normally I let numbers I don't know go to voicemail, I figured three in a row might be an emergency so I picked up anyways. The caller said something in Spanish. I said "wrong number" and hung up.

Mildly annoyed at the early hour, I figured I could still salvage some sleep. Seconds later it rang again. "Numero incorrecto. No hablo español" I barked in elementary Spanish that I hoped was pretty close to accurate. 10 seconds later it rang again.

Now both angry and intrigued, I got up and Googled the area code. Portland, OR.

I tried Googling the full number to get a name to go with my prank caller, at which point I realized something was odd. The number had too many digits. It wasn't Portland. It was an international call from El Salvador!

After a total of 7 calls between 6:32 and 6:35 (2 answered, 3 ignored, 2 sent to voicemail with a minute plus of silence and background noise as the message) it finally stopped and I went back to bed.

It started up again at 8:02am with 9 in a row, a short break, then 15 more between 8:25 and 8:50. These again had a mix of long blank voicemails, hangups, and long pleas to leave me alone obtained via Google Language Tools.

I thought I finally got through to them with the phrase: "Si usted llamar a este número de nuevo, estoy llamando a la policía. ¿Entiendes?" (which translates to "If you call this number again, I am calling the police. Do you understand?"). Nope. 13 more from 10:11 to 10:13. 1 more at 11:06. 8 more from 1:46 to 1:49.

When the phone rang at 1:59 I answered it ready to explode, but it was my sister asking if I knew anyone who wanted her extra Red Sox tickets. The text message to my Boston friends was only half composed when another call came in. I repeated my Spanish phrase about calling the police from memory before the caller started laughing at me.

Ready to jump out a window, I finally decided to call AT&T and have them block the incoming number for me via the switch. We used to have to call Cingular/AT&T and other carrier partners to have this performed quite a bit at Voce. It usually required a trouble ticket with a 24 hour turnaround time and tier 2 assistance, but it was definitely doable. At the rate this was going I'd be able to deal with the possibility of a long turnaround time if I knew an end was near.

After navigating an overcomplicated phone tree and waiting on hold for slightly less than I anticipated I was connected to Christina. I explained my tale to her and asked if she could have the number blocked; she said she'd certainly figure something out and diligently started her research. After a few minutes I decided to reveal that I used to work for an AT&T MVNO and it was fairly standard to do this via tier 2 but it wasn't a function of the Telegence system. She said she was reading something about it but thought they might not have that ability anymore.

A few more minutes went by and a brief time on hold, after which Christina came back and told me it was not possible to have it blocked on the switch, but I could subscribe to a new Smart Limits parental control product they had that would allow me to restrict incoming calls. Her suggestion was to activate Smart Limits for the number in question, but only for a couple weeks hoping they'd get the idea and/or get bored of pranking me. I said that would work for me so long as she could credit my bill for the prorated $4.99 for the new feature, deciding not to point out that the existence of this feature contradicts the "it's impossible to block a number" statement, instead changing it to "It's impossible to block a number for free."

She said that wasn't within her authority, but she'd ask a manager and under the circumstances it would probably be possible. After a brief stint on hold she came back to tell me unfortunately the fee couldn't be waived since I do have the free option of ignoring the call, thus it wouldn't be reasonable to provide me the credit. Personally I could care less about the 5 bucks (actually more like $2 if I only kept the feature for 10 days), but on principal I wasn't going to budge. Also, ignoring the calls wasn't really a "Free" option, as AT&T dings you for airtime whenever you check your voicemail. She agreed and went back to the manager...and was promptly shot down again. This time I was told that the option was free since I could check my voicemail from a landline free of charge (even though I don't have a landline), and thus policy couldn't be broken in this case. (In full disclosure, I also thought that I was docked minutes when a call was sent to voicemail even if I didn't answer, but she corrected me that this is only true when roaming internationally, not domestically.)

I told Christina that I appreciated her help and knew she was just doing her job, but found it ridiculous that AT&T cared more about making $5 then helping out a loyal customer with perfect payment history and no complaints on an overpriced plan. She asked me if I was asked to take a survey would I say she solved my problem; I told her I'd say she was excellent but her employer was questionable as usual.

I understand policies exist for a reason. And I know that a good number of customers will try to game them anytime they can. If I had a recurrent prank calling problem involving multiple numbers or if I was complaining about a stalker or a jilted ex who wouldn't stop bothering me I can see the company holding firm to a degree. But there is gray area in everything, and each example should be viewed on a case by case basis. 60 calls from the same international number in 6+ hours sounds like extenuating circumstances, and you won't waive less than five damn dollars off of someone's bill one time for them to try out a brand new cash cow of a feature for 2 weeks? You've got to be kidding me.

PS: Ironically, it's now 3:30 and I haven't received a call from the bad number in over 90 minutes. Maybe Christina did block it for me afterall...

PPS: Why am I protecting the identity of a foreign prank caller? The number in question is 50379118478

PPPS: Looking at my AT&T account and looking at my live bill, it's dropping the last digit from the number to make it appear to be domestic. Ironically enough, in this configuration it's also labeled as a free Mobile to Mobile call :)

PPPPS: And yes, I do feel better after writing this.


1 comment:

chuljin said...

Familiar in two ways:
1. 20 times a day, last Wednesday to Friday, from a 213 number, to my desk phone at work (which is an unused formality). I didn't answer at all on Wednesday; when I found that the voicemails (left on only 10% of the calls, btw) were in Spanish, on Thursday I answered the first couple of times and said 'Has marcado en error' ('You have dialed in error') then let it ring the rest of the day. Finally Friday afternoon I answered and said 'Quiero que sepas y entiendas que no soy la persona a quien buscas, y que ya no me llames' ('I want you to know and understand that I'm not the person you're looking for [Jedi Mind Trick® wave] and that you no longer call me'. Three more calls after that, even, but then it stopped.
2. Portland vs El Salvador reminds me of West LA vs Netherlands (and occasionally South OC vs India) in the early days of Voce Billing. :)