AT&T Leases Push-Button Phone For Over $7,500 To Elderly

AT&T leased a crappy old-school phone to an elderly gentleman for over $7500 over a span of 30-plus years, his son just discovered. Kimdog writes:

    “Recently, my boyfriend has been helping his 88 year old father with bills and other financial matters. Upon reviewing his dad’s phone bill, he found something horrifying. His parents had been leasing two ratty push button phones from AT&T at the rate of …$10 a month per phone… They’ve probably been doing so since the 60’s, so we figure that they’ve paid well over $7500 for the “use” of these phones.”

When Kim’s boyfriend called to cancel the leasing service, AT&T sent two postage-paid mailers for return of the phones. If they don’t return the phones, AT&T will charge them for the “cost of the equipment.”

If your grandparents or elderly friends have an old phone and haven’t moved in over 20 years, check their phone bill to make sure they’re not still renting their phone. — BEN POPKEN


Edit Your Comment

  1. segfault, registered cat offender says:

    A late relative also rented a phone from the local (cooperative) telephone company. I think the fee was something like $2 a month. They didn’t ask for it back when we cancelled the service.

    The whole phone rental thing stems from back when Ma Bell existed–you couldn’t actually purchase a phone, or connect your own equipment to the phone line, so you had to rent it. Later, after the Ma Bell breakup, people were allowed to buy phones, but some wanted to continue to rent them, so the baby Bells continued to offer the service. There are still a lot of people, usually older people, who rent their phones.

    BTW, you can get an 8-line Norstar office telecom system with a dozen speakerphones for way less than $7500.

  2. mikesfree says:

    Its amazing to me that people dont look at their bills. In 1980’s there should have been some realization that he could have bought the pink swatch phone for $20 at the Venture store. I think it sucks for him that he kept renting that phone, but I didnt keep dialup service for $40 a month. I looked at the competition and made changes as I needed.

  3. Charles Star says:

    BTW, you can get an 8-line Norstar office telecom system with a dozen speakerphones for way less than $7500.

    But is it guaranteed for 30 years?

    Since it now costs $300/year to keep replacing broken cell phones, $7500 may actually be a bargain.*

    * This may actually be a joke.

  4. Clearly, the right thing for the phone company to do would have been to stop charging a lease fee once Ma Bell broke up, and just let them keep the phones that they had probably already paid at least $2k for by then.

    In defense of those “ratty old phones” though, I would much rather have a pushbutton Ma Bell phone from the ’70s than a Norstar interoffice telecom whatchamacalit – every original Bell phone I’ve seen, even 35 year old phones, still work – those things are built like tanks.

  5. shoegazer says:

    …aaand that’s part of the reason why leasing works. For the lessor, anyway. As long as the phones kept working and the customer sufficiently un-savvy, why would they bother changing the lease contract?

  6. Uurp says:

    They were built like tanks because Ma Bell owned them. After the breakup (which is slowly reversing itself, by the way) the Baby Bell-branded phones were’nt made with nearly the same attention to quality.

    My in-laws moved not too long ago, they had the same rotary phone for probably 40 years, and leased it. When we told them they were getting bilked, they said they felt it was their duty to use the phones they were issued so many years ago, as a sign of loyalty to The Company. You wouldn’t want to contaminate their electrical network with foreign equipment or anything!

    Side note: When the law was finally passed allowing third-party equipment on the baby bell lines, our local provider required a physical inspection of the equipment (at their facility) and a $5 registration fee before allowing the user to connect the equipment. Thankfully this nonsense was stopped in short order.

  7. royal72 says:

    put em on ebay! tell the story of the $7500 phones and be sure to include that att wants the phones back. should get some nice press :)

  8. Kung Fu Cantona says:

    I used to work for AT&T and was thoroughly shoked at the amount of revenue that was generated from leasing phones.

  9. TheUpMyAssPlayers says:

    I’d take em to small claims court. Seriously, do the same thing as the other guy did with whatever cell phone company that was. Even if some asshole shows up, you have a case I think for deception and unfair billing practices. I bet you’d get at least 3,000 grand back for your grandparents. Worth a shot at least no?

    7500 is insane. I hope AT&T chokes on the bad press from this.

  10. Antediluvian says:

    I want to know how much AT&T will charge if the phones are not returned.

  11. kimdog says:

    Antediluvian… I really want to know the same thing. I bet my boyfriend it would be around $100 per phone. Maybe I’ll get him to call and find out.

    Yes, it was unfortunate that his parents never thought to let go of the lease… but these are people who were born in the 1910’s. The rate at which technology and billing have changed in their lifetime is phenomenal, and it’s not surprising that people of their generation wouldn’t make the connection that “leasing” was optional.

  12. VA_White says:

    I am so afraid that when I get old, stuff like this will just happen to me and I won’t even know it. How can anyone keep up with the current stuff forever?

    I keep telling myself that my generation is different from my grandparent’s and that surely I will remain aware and informed as I get older but will I? When all the kids are getting nanochip implants in their retinas to pay for Big Gulps, will I be left behind doddering about with my debit card like the other fogeys?

    I will never wear elastic-waist pants and velcro sneakers, right? Right?

  13. TheUpMyAssPlayers says:

    Hey Velcro has it’s uses!

  14. Pasketti says:

    When Ma Bell broke up, I was given the option to purchase my existing Trimline(TM) phone. Back then, Western Electric was the gold standard for telephones. They were rock-solid, and built to last for decades, because they belonged to the phone company. So I bought it. I think it was $79, which was pricey at the time.

    It still works fine. It even has real bells that really ring, for that old-school touch.

  15. Gopher bond says:

    I have an old Bell rotary. I love the ringing of actual bells versus the chirpy fake electronic rings that are standard now. Plus, you can knock out a steer with the 10-pound handset.

  16. formergr says:

    Why should they be taken to small-claims court? No one said they were being deceptive– the lease charge was clearly written on every bill.

    Yes, the customer was elderly and probably didn’t understand, but it seems a bit much to expect AT&T to proactively contact every customer still leasing a phone and explain to them they don’t need to do this, and oh can you stop paying us this extra money?

  17. spanky says:

    Are youse guys sure it was $10 per month? I thought they charged quarterly or something, which would only be one-third as hinky.

    I guess I “collect” old phones. I didn’t mean to start a collection or anything, but I have accumulated probably over fifty of them, built from around 1920 to 1980 or so. (It’s either a collection or a serious mental illness. I can’t decide.)

    Those older, leased models are truly magnificent machines. They were beautifully designed, sturdily constructed, and they’re easy to maintain. They had to be, because they were phone company property, so if and when they malfunctioned, they had to send guys out to fix them.

    So they’re not hoopty old equipment or anything, and the lease still would have covered any necessary repairs.

    However, the phone company really should have just written off all the phones still on lease years ago, and let their loyal customers keep the equipment.

  18. kimdog says:

    The charge was $40 every two months, which is $10 per phone per month. This is in NYC.

  19. Crim Law Geek says:

    You probably are more informed than the average currently old person was at your age. The pre-war generation grew up being indoctrinated that AT&T, Ford, IBM, and Lucky Strikes where as American as a farm girl eating apple pie, and that those companies where only doing what was best for the public.

    AT&T made it possible to call grandma across the country, Ford made it possible to visit her, IBM got us to the moon, and Lucky Strikes let our GI’s win the war. Little did they know that IBM made the machines that kept track of concentration camp victims, Henry Ford was a vocal supporter of the Nazis, AT&T was further up J. Edgar Hoover’s ass than his string bikini, and Lucky Strikes knowingly sold a cancerous product to kids.

    It is very hard to wipe out such extensive brain washing (which was the product of both the companies’ marketing departments and the US Government propaganda). Think of it as a sort of consumer Stockholm syndrome. After all, how could something named “Ma” be bad for you, and why should I look at my bill to make sure she’s not screwing me?

    Subsequent generations (starting out with the baby boomers and progressing to the generation born in the late 70’s-early 80’s do know that companies only care about money and would have you killed if it made them enough of it. You have been trained to be naturally distrustful, and as long as you are not senile, that will stay with you. Sadly, this sort of training is in decline with the newest few generations, who have become accustomed to being bombarded by ads on TV, video games, schools, and pretty much everywhere else.

  20. MeMikeYouNot says:

    I was divorced in 1997; she kept the house of course, but as we were changing utility bills to her name, we found that we were paying, as I recall,

  21. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    I remember at least until the late 70’s, New England Telephone wouldn’t let you own your own phone or add any extensions. As a kid, we always had the one rotary-dial wall phone in the kitchen with the 30 foot handset cord on it. At least back then, though, I think it was like $2 or $3 a month for the phone rental.

    When the big bell-breakup began, they rescinded that regulation. However, I’m guessing many people decided to keep things they way they were and keep on renting the telephone set. My grandmother did that for a long time and kept renting the phone from NET, long after you were allowed to buy your phone. It was probably done in the spirit of “Well, they’re the phone company and they know best.” Since she came from the era where you didn’t have any say in the matter, she just kept on renting the phone.

    Either this gentleman didn’t either didn’t want to buy his own phone, or he’d been paying the bill for so long that he just didn’t know that he could buy his own phone and save the rental charges.

    I’d be willing to bet that there are a lot of older people out there who are still renting their phones for those reasons.

    It’s pretty sad that after all those years, AT&T would demand that the phones be returned. I would say AT&T certainly got their money’s worth out of those two 500 desk sets.

  22. krunk4ever says:

    A similar incident occurred last September:

    Woman paid thousands to rent rotary phone

    Ester Strogen, 82, of Canton, first leased two black rotary phones – the kind whose round dial is moved manually with your finger – in the 1960s. Back then, the technology was new and most people had to rent telephones as part of their basic phone service. It was pre-AT&T when the telephone business was monopolized by the company known as “Ma Bell.”

    Until two months ago, Strogen was still paying AT&T to use the phones – $29.10 every three months, the phone company says. Strogen’s granddaughters, Melissa Howell and Barb Gordon, ended the arrangement when they discovered the bills.

  23. FLConsumer says:

    Gimmie the Nortel over the Western Electric sets… actually, I already have an Aastra IP PBX in my home. VERY pleased with it. I see plenty of 20+ year old Nortel(Aastra) equipment working day in, day out and have no doubt my system will do the same.

    AT&T/Lucent/Avaya used to make good PBXs, but their recent phones feel like they’re made from cardboard. Toshiba’s always been crap, still is. Anyone remember Mitel & Rolm PBXs? Terrible systems from the end-user’s perspective, but I still see them working in the field.

  24. pambamboo says:

    Boy! This is like the 3rd version of this ‘sad’ story that I’ve heard recently. What gets me is these people are old now, true, but we assume that they are intelligent and savy enough to have lived good lives without being repeatedly ripped off because they’re still going at it. But all of a sudden (or 10, 20, or more years ago) they lost their minds and couldn’t spot a (notorious) phone company rip off? And have to be bailed out by child/grandchild? Do life smarts just vanish at a certain age? I’m 63 (ANCIENT) and I’m sharper than I ever was – waaay sharper. Will I wake up in 5 or 10 years in old lady shoes not knowing how to read a bill or count any more? Whoa!

  25. erika says:

    We found out the same thing after my grandma died about her 40+ year old rotary phone. I think my mom figured out that she’d paid $5000 for the thing over time. . .

  26. poornotignorant says:

    Why do we have to live in a society where rich people can screw poor (usually ignorant) people and it’s on the poor people? What are you(Ben and you the reader) doing about this besides writing on a website that you know the peaple who need to be informed aren’t reading? Many poor people don’t get it – what’s your excuse?