Thursday, April 9, 2009

Enhanced Services Billing, Residential Email LLC and AT&T

I was originally going to title this blog "you're sh**ting in my mouth and telling me it's a sundae" (thank you Mr. Show), but I wanted to ensure that Enhanced Services Billing Inc, Residential Email LLC and AT&T show up on Google searches. Before I go any further, I want to encourage all who read this to contact your phone service provider and ask them what the procedure is for "third party billing charges" blocking.

So what is this all about? Last week we received our monthly statement from AT&T. I always dread reading our statement because often there are rate increases of some sort. This bill did not disappoint in that department. We had a whopping increase of $14.95!

It was not actually a rate increase though. It was a charge from a company called Enhanced Services Billing for an email account from a company called Residential Email LLC. I called AT&T to question this charge and was told by the AT&T customer rep "Fernando" that it was not their problem. I would have to call the "third party" billing to dispute the charge.

So I called Enhanced Services Billing Inc. and was routed to Residential Email LLC where I talked to "Jennie". "Jennie" told me that perhaps someone in my household had set up the account. When I explained that this was not the case she changed her story and said that a person by the name of "Gary Stevens" had set up the account and mistakenly entered our phone number. She then asked me for my home address and email address so she could send an account cancellation notice.

I called AT&T back and got "Fernando" again (lucky me). I asked him how I should handle the third party charge since it had been a mistake on Residential Email LLC's part. Would AT&T send a new bill minus the amount or should we just deduct it?

I was informed that I would still be responsible for the charge. What?!!!

Yes that is what I was told by "Fernando" and at least three other AT&T representatives over the course of two days. The charges are the responsibility of the customer to dispute. And this gets even better.

Turns out Enhanced Services Billing Inc. (hereafter known as ESBI) has a long record of fraudulent billing, and Residential Email LLC is just one of the many "companies" that use ESBI to submit fraudulent charges. Topping this off is that AT&T knows all about this. Two of their agents that I spoke with confirmed that they regularly handled complaints about ESBI and Residential Email LLC, but they along with the other agents I spoke with recited the mantra "the FCC forces us to do this".

So can we the customers that pay these companies on a monthly basis block fraudulent businesses from charging us for bogus accounts and services? Depends on who you talk with.

"Yes Mr. Gilberts, you can block third party charges from appearing on your bill. But it can only be done by filling out forms which we will mail to you. Would you like us to mail you these forms?" This is what I heard from three different reps on April 2. "Yes", I replied, " by all means send me the forms".

The following day I called to see if there was a way to find out if there are any new charges on our account for the April billing cycle. The first rep, Eric, said he would put me on hold while he checked on this, then hung up me. The second rep (you would not believe me if I told you his name) I talked with seemed to be hosting a raucous party. As the cacophony raged in the background of his apartment, the AT&T rep told me " I'm not allowed to access your billing records until the 25th of April, but I can send you forms to fill out to block third party charges". Pretty interesting response since I did not mention the situation of the previous day. Maybe one of his guests were privy to my situation. Anyway, I told the fellow a request had already been made for the forms, but asked if he could verify that they had been mailed. He told me " No they have not, but they will be mailed out first thing on Monday, April 6 and I should receive them by Thursday.

I think you can see where this is going.

Here we are on Thursday. No forms in the mail. I call AT&T to inquire about the tardy documents. After getting the usual runaround I finally talk with "Walkell". She puts me on hold for about five minutes, than informs me that they might have been mailed yesterday ( April 8th). She confirms that I did request the forms on April 2nd. And no, I will not have "Third Party Blocking" until those forms are signed, mailed back, and processed, end of story!

Now unbeknownst to "Walkell" I had alerted other AT&T (and related companies) customers to my situation. Some of these folks called AT&T to inquire about this problem and were told that by simply making the call they now had third party blocking. Now why was I not given that same assurance? Perhaps, and I know this is pure speculation, but perhaps this most noblest of phone companies did not give me the same deal because they had already fed my account to the jackals. And perhaps, and again this is speculation, they have already allowed new charges to be added to our account. Blocking applied last week would have prevented charges from being added on April 6th, a month after the first charges were applied. That would have proven to be a sticky situation for them come May when our next statement arrives with an even larger charge.

Well, sorry for this long posting. I admit it is a bit of a rant to purge my anger, a catharses for a man who tends to be quiet and unassuming. But friends I have discussed this problem with have thanked me for alerting them and advised that I pass the word along so that others can protect themselves. It is not just a simple $14.95 problem. This can damage a person's credit rating. Bad enough in a stable economy, but under the current conditions this can mean a financial disaster.

The criminals that applied the charges were just doing what you expect criminals to do. They steal. But a company that should know better not only allowed this to happen, but also made the victim of the crime contact the perpetrators himself thereby opening himself for further damage. My email is now known to them, and there are possibly recordings of me saying "yes" to various prompts and questions (a favorite tele-marketer trick). I didn't know these companies were crooked until after I had looked them up on a Google search. Because surely AT&T would not put a loyal customer in danger, now would they?

It has been a long week of worry, and I don't imagine things are going to get any better given AT&T's behavior. Have any of you ever seen Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil?

And please go over your monthly phone statements with a fine toothed comb.