Charter Communications bungles collection notices

Few things are more annoying than getting notified by a collection agency that you owe money — when you don’t.

That’s been happening recently to hundreds of former Charter Communications customers across the nation. Charter’s billing system acted as if these ex-customers owed money for unreturned equipment when they didn’t. Fixing the problem proved frustrating.

The problem was caused by Charter’s conversion to a new billing system, but that happened two years ago. Only recently, though, were inaccurate bills for unreturned equipment sent out.

M.L. Bogan of Fort Worth disconnected her Charter service years ago. When she first received notice after her disconnection that she owed the company $25 for a modem, she explained that she had bought it.

Then last month, she started getting letters from a collection agency.

She called Charter to explain again, but a rep kept telling her to pay the $25 or return the modem.

“After going round and round in circles and getting nowhere,” she says, she finally got a supervisor who took ownership of her case. She learned that Charter actually owed her $4.81.

Case closed? Not that easy. A week later, she received another collection agency notice claiming she owed Charter $4.81. She made more calls to Charter.

She also called the collection agency, which told her there would be a $9.95 processing fee for her to collect her $4.81 refund, but if she paid the $4.81 to them, they would waive the fee. (Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but little of this does.)

She called Charter again and was told the company had to complete a form for her refund, then it would take six to eight more weeks to process the check. Her account with the collection agency would be cleared.

Then the Charter rep asked whether she wanted to stay on the line and complete a customer satisfaction survey. Really. (I would have!)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

When Nancy Fitzhugh of Fort Worth ended her Charter service two years ago, she sent her modem back. In January, a collection agency demanded $33.

She says, “Their approach was ‘It’s only $33, and it would be easier just to pay it.'”

When she refused, an agent warned her, “We are not going away.”

Oh, yeah? I shared her problem with my Charter contact. The calls stopped coming. Then last month, she received an unexpected refund of $45 from Charter.

Richard W. Cree Jr. dropped Charter a few years ago, and he returned his modem. After that, he kept receiving letters asking for $25. Each time, he’d call and explain that he returned the modem.

“This went on for over two years,” he says. A month ago, he received a demand letter from a collection agency in Florida for $33.

He visited a Charter storefront in Keller. A Charter rep told him she heard the same story from other customers.

Turns out Cree had a $95 credit on his account that he didn’t know about. After he received his refund, he took $25 of that to use for a gift card for the Charter rep who had been kind to him. Classy.

Charter spokesman Kevin Allen says, “These accounts should not have been sent to the collector, and Charter corrected this as soon as we realized the error that had occurred.”

The company is changing its procedures to review equipment returns and compare them with a customer’s credit balance before collection agencies are notified, he says. He estimates that less than 1 percent of Charter’s customers were affected.

What do you do if you get caught in a similar comedy of errors?

The Charter spokesman suggests: “Keeping detailed records and receipts is key. In the example of Ms. Fitzhugh, she had maintained detailed records including her receipt for returned equipment, which made her situation simple for Charter to resolve.

“In addition, Charter’s associates at our sales and service centers are trained to research and resolve all situations that arise. Visiting one of our community offices is another way to resolve an issue such as this.”

The Watchdog adds that federal law gives consumers protection when they are served with false collection notices. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the rulebook for these situations.

Consumers wrongly dunned need to send a letter to the collector challenging the debt. That starts the clock, giving the collector 30 days to prove that the debt is accurate.

It ends up a battle between your paperwork and theirs, and that’s why keeping receipts for returned equipment is vital.

Visit Watchdog Nation HeadquartersDave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Like Watchdog Nation on Facebook

Watch Watchdog Nation on YouTube

Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber


Customer figures out how to win dispute with water department

You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip, and, usually, you can’t convince your municipal water company that its meters are bad. Water departments are notoriously stubborn. Their culture is built around the idea that water meters are supposed to be about 99 percent accurate.

But what about the other 1 percent?

Usually, it’s a duel between homeowner and water department. The homeowner swears on a stack of skyrocketing water bills that the family didn’t use nearly that much water. The water department counters that there must be a leak.

Homeowner hires a plumber. That bill is often very costly, whether there’s a leak or not.

How do you get a water department to listen? As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, we met someone who figured it out. Carolyn Fobes could teach a class on how to fight — no, make that convince — city hall. She’s a four-time cancer survivor who says: “I don’t give up easily. I play to win.” These days, that’s an art all its own.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Her first student could be Letha Wood of Fort Worth, Texas, who told me last week how her monthly water bill jumped from its usual $50 to $104, then to $119, $176, $288 and $329. She and her husband didn’t figure out until months too late that they had a leak.

The plumbing repair job cost $2,200. Fort Worth reimbursed the couple some $180 under its leak adjustment policy. (The city credits an account for 50 percent of the excess water use for up to two months based on historical usage.)

That was a difficult experience for Wood and her husband, both almost 90 years old.

Fobes can relate. Her bill jumped from $66 to $194 in one month. Of course, she was told that she had a leak, too.

“After paying $800 to a national plumbing company, we were told we had no leak,” she recalls.

“We paid the water bill, even though we believed it to be erroneous.”

Then her bill spiked again from one month to the next — $61 to $195. Guess what the water department told her?

This time, she visited the water department “in person,” she says. She requested a bill adjustment. Denied.

She put her request in writing and was again denied. She sent her protest to the mayor and public works director, too. Since the same thing had happened twice, she reasoned that either the equipment was faulty or her meter was misread.

Two months later, she received a robo-phone call announcing that her water was going to be turned off because she hadn’t made her entire payment.

She called the city manager’s office and requested a meeting. She was referred to North Richland Hills Assistant City Manager Karen Bostic who — wait for it — took her seriously.

Bostic recalls what happened:

“She did a lot to help herself. She continued paying her current bill. … She didn’t get angry and say, ‘I’m not paying a dime.’

“She wasn’t going to play the game of ‘Well, if I can’t get my way, I’m just going to stop paying all my bills,’ which I’ve seen happen before.

“It’s easier to work with someone when you know there’s no game playing. A number of people run into financial trouble and instead of calling the water department, they just stop paying bills. They get on the cutoff list, and their water is cut off. If they would just call when they start having financial problems, 99 percent of the time we’re willing to work with them.”

The city allows for adjustments when there is evidence of a leak and receipts can prove that repairs were made. In Fobes’ case, nobody knows what happened.

That didn’t stop her. Bostic said she was impressed by Fobes’ tone: “She was very reasonable and logical. She had all her information at hand. She wasn’t argumentative. It’s tough to work with someone when they try to strongarm you as soon as you get on the phone. I’ve had people who don’t have all their ducks in a row.”

Good water metaphor. That’s how Fobes originally got my attention. She wrote me: “I’m getting hosed.”

Her clear presentation of her problem is impressive. “I was a journalism major in college,” she says, “but have spent most of my life in accounting. Both professions require research and organization skills.”

Don’t forget true grit. Fobes has that — and a victory. “My tenacity has paid off,” she says.

Bostic totaled Fobes’ water usage for six years, deducted the highest and lowest, calculated a four-year average, then deducted what had already been paid. (Kids, see why math is important?)

The city cut almost $200 from her bill, though officials still don’t know what caused the spikes. Bostic called them “very odd.”

“All is right with the world,” Fobes says.

Visit Watchdog Nation HeadquartersDave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Like Watchdog Nation on Facebook

Watch Watchdog Nation on YouTube

Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber


How to fight your electric bill

How to fight your electric bill

People complain about high electricity bills. Often they’re ignored. Here’s how a prosecutor shows you how to take care of bad customer service reps who don’t care.

A Texas “power” story

Power plants across Texas fail. People have to cope with rolling blackouts. That makes Watchdog Nation long for the good old days when people complained about smart meters and their bills going up. Good old days? That would be before the great ice storms of 2011 in North Texas.

Although The Watchdog can’t solve the rolling blackouts, we will continue to shine a light on the Texas electricity system.

Customer service is questionable

Today’s victims, er, electricity customers: John and Mary Brasher of Wichita Falls. John Brasher is a 25-year veteran prosecutor in the Wichita County district attorney’s office who handles appeals. After his smart meter was installed, his next bill came in four times higher than the previous month’s. So the couple launched an appeal with TXU Energy.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Mary Brasher called customer service. She got no help. “I knew I was talking to someone overseas. His phrases didn’t sound right. I felt like he was reading me a canned answer. He kept repeating the same phrases over and over,” she said.

Next, the couple wrote TXU. They even diagnosed their own problem, telling TXU that their old meter reading was most likely inaccurate.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Difficulty communicating

Here are excerpts from their ensuing correspondence.

TXU: “Dear Mr. Brasher … the meter was accurately read.”

Brasher: “Did you even read my last email? … Where is the old meter? Can it be tested?”

TXU: “All bill dates and due amounts are continuing as normal.”

Brasher: “You are absolutely wrong. … That is crazy, and I do not appreciate your canned answer one bit. I am notifying the Texas Public Utility Commission. Additionally, I would appreciate a chance to review and read the old meter myself. I am sure you have it stored some place. I expect to receive a real answer from you, not a canned answer.”

You can be an electricity company prosecutor, too

That didn’t happen, so John Brasher filed a complaint with the PUC: “TXU will provide us no information about whether the ‘old’ meter can be located and read. … We would like a reasonable explanation, rather than the arrogant and condescending responses we have been given by TXU.”

The prosecutor continues, “If, in fact, the old meter can no longer be read merely because it has been removed, then that is a loophole that needs to be closed. Otherwise, TXU can claim any electrical usage it wants to without the consumer having any recourse. We can only assume that this is in fact what TXU is doing, since it will not provide any answers to us.”

His PUC complaint got everyone’s attention, and finally the facts came out.

Who is to blame?

Oncor Electric Delivery says its reader misread the Brashers’ meter two weeks before the old meter was swapped for the smart meter. Oncor realized the error and notified TXU. But TXU didn’t tell the Brashers.

Turns out the old meters are stored in a warehouse, and photographs are taken showing the final reading. Until PUC got involved, though, nobody bothered to tell the Brashers that. “Seems to be a straightforward question,” Mary Brasher said.

TXU spokesman Michael Patterson accepts blame: “Obviously, we fell a little short. … There was a disconnect here, and I know that’s frustrating to the customer.” (Yes, he said “disconnect.”)

“The rep that responded didn’t connect the dots that maybe there was an issue when they changed the meter.”

TXU is tracking the error, he says, and spreading the word among its personnel about what went wrong. As for taking the complaint to the PUC, he adds, “We certainly don’t want that for a number of reasons.”

The Brashers’ bill is now reconciled. But the couple and TXU aren’t. The Brashers say they’re switching electricity companies.

There’s good news here. If part of the problem is, in fact, canned answers from overseas customer service reps who don’t always understand the complexities of the company they serve, TXU offers a better solution: The company has announced that it is adding new call centers in Abilene and Lubbock and expanding a call center in Irving. The moves are supposed to create and save 500 jobs.

Where are the remaining TXU customer service jobs?

“We don’t disclose specific numbers for our customer contact centers, but with this reconfiguration, the company will have a 70 percent domestic, 30 percent Latin America mix,” Patterson said.

Watchdog Nation has previously reported that TXU call centers were situated in Bangalore, India; Krakow, Poland; and the Philippines.

Those overseas outposts are gone — replaced, Patterson says, by what TXU calls “near-shore operations.” These, he said, are “in Spanish-speaking regions, and they consistently provide us with cost-effective and high-quality service for our customers.”

The Brashers say they don’t care who answers the phone as long as they get correct and honest answers.

Visit Watchdog Nation HeadquartersDave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Like Watchdog Nation on Facebook

Watch Watchdog Nation on YouTube

Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Available in hardcover, on iTunes (audio), Kindle and iPad

BOOK REVIEW: Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

By Maggie Dwyer

[This review originally appeared on author Maggie Dwyer’s Two Cents At A Time website here.]

Yankee Cowboy Publishing, Keller, Texas, 2010, Second Edition (Revised & Expanded)

$20, and worth every penny.

ISBN-10: 0970853025

ISBN-13: 978-0970853028

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation pays for itself many times over with simple savings ideas, book reviewer Maggie Dwyer writes.

Book reviewer Maggie Dwyer

I’ve been meaning to write this book review for a while, and kept putting it off. Partly because I was busy using the book myself. Since I started following these tips of Lieber’s closely I have changed my phone company, my electric company, and my Internet service. In those few acts alone I’ve paid for the book several times over. But the thing that set me to writing finally was a story a friend told me last week that made me want to kick something. Like a crooked roofing contractor.

My friend has been living in straightened circumstances for a number of years, getting by, but putting off a lot of things that needed doing. Finally, he could no longer put off having his flat-roofed Frank Lloyd Wright-style bungalow re-roofed. I had a real good one to recommend, who has done work for me a couple of times, and came to me via a contractor friend who has also worked for me a couple of times. My neighbors have also used and liked him. Word of mouth and satisfied customers is a good way to find a roofer. But my friend was trying to cut corners so he took the lowball bid from a guy who knew someone he knew. . . not a great introduction.

That job was slow, it was sloppy, and when torrential rains during the job got the house wet, everything turned musty and damp, and tar dripped down spots the inside walls. They didn’t finish promptly, they actually didn’t finish it. The rocks that need to be taken onto the roof are still in the side yard. The roofer had no insurance to pay for the damage to the house.

The worst (you mean, that’s not bad enough?) was discovered last week. The roofers (the only people allowed in this otherwise locked yard with very tall fences and gates) stole several expensive items. The theft was disguised by simply leaving behind the boxes and cases. A new pool pump, a good circular saw, the only evidence of their original habitation there are their empty boxes. Had my friend followed my recommendation, he would have had the job done for about the same quote as this fly-by-night roofer. And he wouldn’t have been out the hardware around the house or all of the time and expense of repairing the house now.

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.I’m sorry I didn’t write this review earlier, because I would have sent a copy of it to my friend and said “Do what Dave suggests – look at the local reviews, check with the BBB (Better Business Bureau), get personal recommendations from people you trust.” The bid price isn’t a bargain if the job isn’t done right, isn’t done at all, or is done so wrong as to cause more damage than a simply leaking roof will do.

I’ve sent copies of pages of this book to people. My brother received the pages (114-15) to do with complaining to the post office. It turns out that you CAN complain, you don’t have to take the desk clerk’s shrugged “that’s tough, you only paid for Priority, it wasn’t insured,” when you complain about something that went wrong that was under their control. (It seems the Artesia, CA, post office has a special drop-kick-and-thrash machine for both envelopes and packages, and special delay of weeks on delivering Priority mail.)

There was a woman at Lowe’s hardware in Fort Worth, TX, who was buying fans, and mentioned, “I have to set up an electric company in this new house. I suppose I’m stuck with TXU.” The clerk and I simultaneously said “NO!” but I was the one who was able to tell her how to do a good search to make a choice – “Go to Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation ( web site and look for his articles about how to choose an electric company.”

Dave Lieber is the consumer advocate columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and he solves this kind of problem and shares the whys and wherefores with his readers for a living. This guy is good. He’s smart, he’s efficient, and I bet when he phones and has someone by the short hairs because of their company’s poor customer service, he’s a bit of a pain in the ass (though I do believe him when he says he tries really hard to be super polite, because he records his calls and if he needs to use them as evidence, he doesn’t want to sound like the bully in the conversation). And that old honey versus vinegar thing. I wish I had his discipline – I’ve had to hang up on some of these folks, telling them “I’m so angry at you I can’t be polite any more. Goodbye.” At least I learned from Dave to stop before I became rude, not slog forward and accomplish little.

Early in the book Lieber notes that 15 minutes a day to solve some of these problems may be the way to pace yourself, to not feel overwhelmed if you have several issues to solve. That’s a good strategy. And keep a separate folder and page of notes for each business and each call. Take names, real names, if possible.

I’ve glossed over a few of the tricks that Dave Lieber discusses in this little gem of a book. You’ll have to read it to find his descriptions of how to make these techniques work. His chapters are each no longer than a typical newspaper column, so you can read through this book a short chapter at a time, or read through it cover to cover in one sitting.

I still have work to do – my local Fort Worth cable company has the most obtuse billing system and the most inefficient customer service clerks I’ve ever encountered. Just try to get a credit to show up on your bill. They apply it to the “taxes and other charges” but it never seems to actually make the balance drop. So I’m still working on that. And on that, my best contact method is another one of Dave’s recommendations (and at least they’re pleasant to talk to, if their efforts still go for naught) is to type my frustration regarding this company into a line of my Twitter feed. Use the pound sign (hashmark) # with no space before the company name to make it easier for them to find your remarks. They’ll usually figure out who you are and actually call pretty quickly. I’ve heard from them within 30 minutes. Who knew?

One of the other really important things Dave comments on is to say “thank you” when it due. I’ve used tweets and written blog entries where appropriate to do just that. So this book review is also a blog entry and a “thank you” to Dave Lieber for a job really well done. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, but I don’t feel obligated to stay with these companies forever and ever, if they do me wrong. That’s a good lesson!

Now, go ask a bunch of questions!

Dave Lieber's popular button was written about in USA Today.

# # #

Maggie Dwyer of Fort Worth, Texas is a writer and web designer at University of Texas at Arlington Library. She’s a former park ranger naturalist and an avid organic gardener.

Follow Maggie Dwyer’s blog here.

Follow her “A Woman of Many Parts” blog here.

Follow Maggie Dwyer on Twitter @Maggie_Dwyer

Funky lamp leads him to a billionaire

[This is written by Monty Snow, a guest columnist for]

I had a very unusual experience that ran counter to the norm, and I thought you might like to hear it.

My wife Rochelle and I had found this little lamp at IKEA that we just loved and couldn’t find anywhere else. Trouble was, they were out of stock. So, we tracked it on their website until, according to the website, it was in stock.

So, I drove to Frisco and guess what?  It was still out of stock.  I asked about it and they apologized for a computer glitch.  So, I drove home and waited a couple of weeks and checked it again.  Now it was in stock.  So, I drove to Frisco.

IKEA logo

When I drove back to Frisco and found it STILL out of stock, I asked if I could buy the display model, but the woman who was stocking the lighting section told me that was against company policy.  I noted that they had two display models and what difference was it going to make if they had one or two, especially since a customer had been inconvenienced twice by their error.  She couldn’t violate company policy.

So, I sought out a supervisor.  I couldn’t find any offices.  It seems that all the supervisors at IKEA are working on the floor.  So, I asked a worker where I could find one, and he pointed to a guy across the floor who was standing in front of a computer while another guy was talking in one ear while he was answering his phone with the other.  I didn’t think there was any way this guy was going to help me, but I waited patiently, and when I got a chance, I told him my story.

He was a young man, quiet and polite, and as soon as I finished, he asked me to wait by the checkout, and he headed toward lighting, answering his phone as he went.  He was gone 10 or 15 minutes, and didn’t come back until he had found the lamp I had been looking for.  I was very impressed by his willingness to go out of his way to help a customer when all he really had to do was repeat company policy, so I asked him for his name and wrote it down.

When I got home I wrote a letter to his boss telling him how this supervisor had gone out of his way to provide service in what is pretty much a self-service operation.

Well, you know how I tend to overdo things, so on a whim, I wrote the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad – in Sweden.  This guy is the richest man in Europe and the fifth richest man in the world.  Never in a million years did I expect a reply.  So I was shocked when an envelope with Swedish postage arrived.  Here is the letter.


Dear Mr. Snow!

How very kind of you to take time and write about your experience in our IKEA store in Frisco, Texas.  You certainly make me feel very proud of our staff there, particularly Mr. Ruigu!

I apologize for taking so long to reply to your letter which had taken some time to reach me.

You point to the risk of impersonality in a business like ours, and I could not agree more.  We try to maintain the spirit of the small Swedish company we once were, and itis not always easy.  I often use the Swedish word “Tillsammans” – meaning “together” – to underline how very important each one of us are for the total result.  That is a lesson I learnt very early on the farm where I grew up in Sweden.  It has followed me ever since.

Again, my heartfelt thanks for you letter.  I wish you and your family a joyful Christmas and look forward to see you again in one of our stores.

Ingvar Kamprad

(The signature indented the back of the paper and appears to be genuine, rather than machine-generated).

The guest columnist and his lamp

The guest columnist and his lamp

Dave Lieber’s Wackiest Customer Service Call of the Year

What’s the strangest customer service telephone call you had in 2009?

I have one, and fortunately, I taped it. [Actual audio links are at the bottom.]

The latest sting perpetrated on us by software companies is that employees at their call centers attempt to charge us for technical support because of flaws in their own stupid software. I mean, you shell out $100 for a package, and when it doesn’t work properly, the person at the call center tries to hook you into spending more money to fix it.

However, whether you get charged or not is often up to the customer service rep. Now I’m not going to name the software company involved here because, honestly, I don’t want to get this dude fired. He lives in India. He’s worked for the company for two years. And I like his style. Enough said.

But here’s the rub: He was trying to charge me $80 to install his company’s financial software. I rebelled.  Explained that the salesman said installation was free. Then we struck a gentlemen’s agreement. I would grant him access to my computer if he could look around and examine some of my software programs. Seems that he likes software that Americans have on our computers.

Sounds strange, I know. But remember he is earning the equivalent of about $2,000 U.S. dollars a year helping people like me. He could poke around — with me watching — and have some fun. And maybe I could save $80.

Turns out this guy has a massive infatuation with Microsoft Office. Once, he saw that Microsoft Word installed, he was mesmerized and couldn’t wait to try the buttons and ask me questions.

“We don’t have Microsoft Word here,” he said about his office setup.

“What do you use?” I asked.

“Chris,” he answered, as he continued to push the various tabs to see what Word can do.

“Do you have a computer at home?” I asked.

“I’m planning on getting one.”

Before that, I never realized before that many of the people who help us overseas probably don’t make enough to buy the products that they know (supposedly) so well. They talk to a guy like me who spends more money on electronic equipment than they earn in an entire year. Sometimes, we’re nice to them. Sometimes, we’re not. Whatever.

We spent 10 minutes talking about whatever he wanted to talk about. I was in no hurry. Obviously, he wasn’t being carefully monitored by his supervisor.

“There’s a lot to learn,” he said at one point. “Study never ends.” (Tell me about it.)

Finally, he asked what I did for a living, and I showed him my Web sites.  When he asked what WatchdogNation does, and I explained its purpose, his reaction was abrupt:

“Can you minimize it?” he asked about’s home page.

He quickly turned to my problem. Fun time was over. In minutes, he fixed my installation problem.

And, no, he didn’t charge me.

Listen to Part One of Dave Lieber’s Wackiest Customer Service Call of 2009 here.

Listen to Part Two of Dave Lieber’s Wackiest Customer Service Call of 2009 here.

What was your wackiest call?

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the bookwon two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

How NOT to fix customer service

Every day of every week, I get mail and e-mails from Americans who want help fighting corruption and stupidity in government and business.

Today, for example, I heard from Bill, who has been trying for weeks to get someone from a local hospital to help him with a bill that he says he doesn’t owe.

I heard from Cecelia, an 80-year-old woman who has called her satellite TV company many times without success to complain about poor wiring. When she finally cancelled, they sent a collection agency to harass her “with daily calls, morning, noon and night. I have medical conditions that have been aggravated by these calls.”

And I heard from Gwen, 88, whose cable TV company assured her the installation charge would be $9.99. Instead, she got a bill for $149.95.

Fortunately, I’ve been doing this long enough so that I know key executives at each of these companies. I’ve already sent copies of letters from Bill, Cecelia and Gwen. I expect all three will hear from these companies in the next few days.

But this silly procedure of mine – taking complaints and passing them on – doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It’s a temporary fix. I help one, but thousands suffer from the same problem.

Each of these companies has broken or struggling customer-service cultures. OK, that’s putting it kindly. They stink. They rot to hell. They ruin days and nights for their customers with their never-ending incompetence.

And that’s the reason I can’t get David Avrin’s story out of my mind. I always wondered what happens behind the secretive doors of America’s top corporations when top executives figure out that they need to bring somebody in from the outside to help their employees see the light.

David Avrin | The Visibility Coach

David Avrin | The Visibility Coach

Avrin, known as The Visibility Coach, is one of the smartest people I’ve met when it comes to image-building and branding. He understands the trinity of media, public relations and advertising as well as anyonee’s a classy guy, too – Don Draper without the adultery. His specialty is coaching chief executive officers.

And that’s how he ended up telling the story about how he was called into a major corporation to help settle internal customer-service issues. But then, as he explains, he walks into a huge trap of his own making. He’s sitting there, facing the CEO, and because of his own boneheaded move, he has nothing left to give.

Avrin’s brutal honestly in his story helps me see how Bill, Cecelia and Gwen can’t get satisfaction. Please read David Avrin’s moving story here – and find out how he became part of the problem he was supposed to fix.

Getting a refund: It’s not like the good old days

Today, we listen to Ruth Wingfield, a 98-year-old great-grandmother in Arlington, as she describes her bout with the Cigna Medicare Rx drug plan:


I’m really mad because they’ve got my money and won’t give it back. And I’m their customer.

This all started [in late February] because they suddenly started charging 40 cents a month, which I had to pay to them, not to the pharmacy here. Would you want to write a 40-cent check?

So I got a bill for three months for $1.20. I was trying to be nice. I was going to pay them for a year, $4.80.

I gathered up my three or four bills and wrote them out. They were all for around $100. When I got to this one, I was going to pay them for a year, $4.80; and so I wrote it for $480. I’m a crippled old woman. I was embarrassed to tell anybody. I pride myself on being careful, you know? My daughter could have made the same mistake.

I could have called the bank and stopped the check, but I thought they were honest. I called and got a supervisor, and he told me he would mail that check back. That was a month ago. I didn’t write his name down. Next time, I will.

This is what I got after that — a bill that shows I have a credit of $478. It says, “NO PREMIUM DUE! PLEASE DO NOT REMIT PAYMENT!”

I’m prepaid for a hundred years, and I may not live three days. Now does that make sense for your good customer?

See, they take advantage. They say, “That old woman is senile. She won’t remember.”

I called them two or three times, and they said, “It’s being processed.” But that’s my money, and I want it. Yeah, I got bills right here that I need to pay. My Social Security income is all the income I have. I’ve just got to be real careful. I’ve just got a limited amount that comes in. Wouldn’t you think a month would be long enough to process something?

I talked to my letter carrier and he told me that at the Star-Telegram, they got somebody down there that helps old ladies. Dogpatch or something. I found the directory and found the Star-Telegram number. I told the man on the phone that I want to talk to the people that help old ladies, the dogpatch guy.

Is that what you call our place?. Oh, Watchdog. See, you caught me in another mistake. Let me write that down. That wasn’t but too far off. This sure takes a knot out of my stomach.


Cigna response:

Now we hear from Lindsay Shearer of Cigna HealthCare:

The sum was wired to Mrs. Wingfield’s account. Everything has been resolved. Thank you for helping us get to her so we could take care of it quickly.

We will always look into a situation like this and remedy the process to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

As you know, we’re not able to speak about any individual’s specific situation because of both Cigna and federal privacy laws. What I can tell you is that refund requests are researched for verification and processed on a weekly basis. While we usually tell people they can expect a refund within 30 days, the refund checks typically arrive within 7-10 days. This is all within [federal] guidelines.

Member service representatives go through ongoing process and customer service training to understand the unique needs of seniors. While extremely rare, if the process breaks down for any reason, we take it very seriously and conduct a thorough review of the situation and then take the necessary steps, such as additional training, to make sure it does not happen again.


Not the way it used to be

Final words from Wingfield:


They just break my heart. It hurts to know the world has gone this way. And you know, I’m old-fashioned. I take it that everybody can be honest. But I guess it doesn’t work that way anymore.