Self-regulation of online spying by the spies? Oh, please!

Have you heard of online behavioral advertising?

That’s Web sites tracking your online activities, including your searches, and delivering advertising to you based on your interests. For now, the practice is unregulated by the federal government, and companies are supposed to regulate themselves.

But the government and privacy experts are scrutinizing this growing practice in light of privacy concerns. They say they worry most about use of sensitive information regarding finance, children’s privacy, health and Social Security numbers.

A Federal Trade Commission report says a company engaged in the practice must provide “clear and prominent notice” to consumers that it tracks Web habits to match related advertising. The report says such alerts are often posted in lengthy and difficult-to-understand notices.

Companies need to create effective disclosure statements separate from privacy policies, the report says. It also says companies should let consumers opt out of behavioral advertising.

Dear AT&T, With Love from The Watchdog

Dear AT&T:

I have a question for you: Why do so many people complain to me about your customer service? Repeatedly, they tell me about customer service reps who drop the ball. Lately, I’m hearing a lot of grumbling about your U-verse television service.

See, I have this job that allows me to monitor in an unscientific way which companies are on top of their game. When I keep hearing from readers about one particular company, I know things aren’t right.

Lately, I’m hearing about you.

When you rolled out your U-verse television service in Dallas-Fort Worth 16 months ago, were you prepared to handle your customers and all their ensuing troubles?

Your spokeswoman told me about the “phenomenal customer growth” that brought you 100,000 new U-verse customers in the region. She didn’t agree that there are major problems and said you diligently train your staff of 300,000 to provide great service to everyone.

You do have a call center dedicated to U-verse troubleshooting, and your promised two-hour installation window for a technician visit is commendable – when it works.

“Overall,” spokeswoman Sarah Andreani told me, “we really have gotten a positive response from U-verse customers.”

Granted, J.D. Power and Associates named you the best TV provider in customer satisfaction for our region. So good for you. But the folks who contacted The Watchdog apparently didn’t vote.

I’m talking about customers like Shaun and Kim Hamblin, who ordered U-verse but waited three times for installers who never showed. And when one finally arrived, he accidentally cut their DSL line and they lost Internet service for days.

There’s Cheryl Vieau, fighting a $225 disconnect fee without much success for weeks. “I have been on the phone, mostly on hold, for hours,” she said.

Thomas Parker, fretting for a year about U-verse, said he is giving up: “I have no more patience for this. I haven’t complained in over a month because what’s the point?”

James Burke said six technicians visited his home, but none could fix his poor TV service. “No one seems to care about my problem,” he said.

Seth Viertel has tried for months – “I am at my wits’ end” – to get payments restored to his checking account that were originally credited to the wrong customer account. “AT&T’s customer service is anything but,” he said.

Rebates and rewards? Another sticky wicket. Charles Dempsey couldn’t get his promised $50 gift card from you for signing up for your long-distance plan.

Donald Martin is waiting for his referral reward, too. Someone on your end punched in a wrong number. “It seems there are so many little things that can disqualify one for a reward, and AT&T doesn’t even let you know if they are not going to honor them,” he said.

Complaints about your land-line and cellular service are rarer, but hey, you’re the phone company. That’s what you did for a century before you suddenly spread your wings into TV and computers.

Before you celebrate, though, I’d better mention Morgan Bilbo. He’s still ticked at you because he continues to receive bills for calls he says he didn’t make. “I am very upset and losing sleep over it,” he said.

AT&T, maybe I’m being too rough, but maybe not. Listen to Joyce Polson, who began her letter to me about her U-verse/Internet package this way: “The worst day of my life was the day my husband switched us to this messed up service.”

All these customers contacted me because they couldn’t get anywhere with you. I passed them on to Andreani, your spokeswoman, and she took over from there.

But AT&T, I really don’t want to be your middleman.

As Andreani said, one unhappy customer is one too many.

“We are continuing to improve, but you know what, we have a lot of work to do,” she said.