T-Mobile Won’t Refund Peace Corps Volunteer’s ETF Because South Pacific Isn’t ‘Overseas’ Enough

Naseem is a Peace Corps volunteer, serving in the South Pacific. She had once been told that as a U.S. government employee sent to an overseas posting, she would be freed from her T-Mobile contract when the time came for her to leave the country. She had nothing to worry about, all of the company representatives she talked to assured her. It would be fine. She would have to pay an early termination fee. Until someone at T-Mobile decided that the South Pacific doesn’t count as “overseas,” and she has to somehow prove that she’s not still in the United States.

Normally one would do this with a lease, a utility bill, or some other kind of proof of living in the modern, developed world. In her volunteer housing in Vanuatu, Naseem has none of these things.

I am a currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu (in the South Pacific). I found out about my departure for Peace Corps in early July and called T-Mobile at least 3 times over the next 3 months before my departure (Oct 5 2012) to make sure that I would not be charged an early termination fee. I was reassured that as an employee of the US govt being sent overseas, I sure wouldn’t. I called in again a few weeks before leaving and was told that I probably would be charged a fee, but that I would just have to send an email to their contract review department with proof of my contract and I would receive a refund. Easy peasy. I did so. I did not hear back before my departure but called T-Mobile again two nights before I left the US and reviewed the situation. I was assured there was nothing to worry about, sometimes that department is behind, it takes at least 2 weeks to hear back, etc, etc.

Fast forward to November, when I was able to check my email for the first time in a month and had received an email address that was unable to receive responses, stating that since I had moved to Vanuatu and that was not overseas, I would have to provide further proof that I was eligible. I was living in a remote training village with no electricity or running water, never mind internet, so I asked my parents if they could work on this-my father is an authorized user on my account and also possesses a Power of Attorney on my behalf. He made no headway, and gave up. I had our Peace Corps administrative officer write a letter on PC letterhead that stated all the relevant information and sent it in. Again, no go. When I was able to get to a place with internet access again, months later, I tried to live chat T-Mobile a startling number of times but the session always ended immediately after I typed my problem and after trying for three hours one day, I became extremely irritated and gave up. I am now in town again for a few days and successfully live chatted with a T-Mobile representative to whom I tried to explain the extremely extenuating circumstances of my situation. Let me share:

I cannot provide a utilities bill because I do not HAVE any utilities. No lights, no gas, no water, and certainly no trash collection.

I cannot provide citizenship documentation because I am NOT a citizen, for heaven’s sake, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer and a citizen and employee of the US government.

I cannot provide a vote registration card, because again, I’m not registered to vote. I vote in the US.

I cannot provide a rental agreement or lease because I don’t pay rent. Again, I am a volunteer, and am housed in a structure appointed/built by the village for a volunteer.

This particular representative was for more flexible than others I have dealt with in that he was able to deviate from his script to try and assist me, but the conclusion we came to is that clearly the rules do not account for situations like mine. His last suggestion was to have the village chief (a man who is illiterate and does not speak English) write a letter on my behalf, verifying my residency in the village. Hopefully you can see how this might be an issue.

I am at my wit’s end and if I wasn’t broke as a joke living in the third world and hoping to travel after giving up two years of my life to help the indigenous people of this country build toilets and water systems, I would forget this $50 and run as far away from T-Mobile as I could when I’m in a situation to do that again. But at this point, it’s about the principle, and well, like I said, I’m a volunteer-and broke!

That’s a lot of hoops to jump through for fifty bucks, but Naseem is right: at this point, it is the principle. What if they wanted hundreds of dollars?

T-Mobile executives have proven receptive to the executive e-mail carpet bomb in the past, which may be an option now that Naseem has access to e-mail again.