The New AT&T: Fixing Our Mistake Is A Courtesy To You, And We'll Only Do It Once

Whoever writes the scripts that CSRs are required to spit out has extremely poor social skills. When your company screws up someone’s billing, then shuts off their phone and tries to charge them a fee, that’s your mistake. Fixing it is not “a courtesy.” It’s also not a “one-time courtesy.”

This is one of the most common complaints we get at Consumerist. We know you AT&T executives read this blog. You should tell your CSRs not to say this to people. That’s our advice. We’re giving you this advice as a one-time courtesy.

Meet Jonah. His cell phone was shut off due to an error in AT&T’s automatic billing system. Johan writes:

So I try to escalate and she says “Well /as a courtesy/ I CAN waive that $36 fee, but I can only do it one time /as a courtesy/.” A courtesy!?!? You screw up, you admit that your system is borked, you still tell me you’re going to charge me $36 for your screw up, and then waiving the fee is a courtesy!?!? *argh*

Read Jonah’s email inside.

Jonah writes:

My tale of wireless woes…

I was signed up for AutoPay to automatically deduct from my credit card each month. I get notification from my bank that my credit card is compromised. So I log into Cingular…The New AT&T to update my card. The system keeps reverting back to my old, now canceled card…*argh* So finally I cancel AutoPay and quickly sign up again with a new card. Now I think I have it set up…it is showing the last 4 digits of my new card. I don’t think any more about it. Until today…I go to use my phone to call my wife and get told that my account is past-due and disabled *argh*.

I call in and they say they have text messaged me, called me and emailed me about this, which in past experience with credit card expatriations, they have, but not under The New AT&T apparently, I received absolutely no communication from them that my bill was past due.. Then they try to slap a $36 disconnect fee on me for their system screwing up…ummm…you guys messed up…not me! So I try to escalate and she says “Well /as a courtesy/ I CAN waive that $36 fee, but I can only do it one time /as a courtesy/.” A courtesy!?!? You screw up, you admit that your system is borked, you still tell me you’re going to charge me $36 for your screw up, and then waiving the fee is a courtesy!?!? *argh*

Lesson1: Don’t rely upon any notification service that you are accustomed to from a behemoth service providing company.

Lesson2: If you get whacked with the $36 fee…you can apparently get it waived once…/as a courtesy/…just never expect to get that fee waived again for all of time.


This is just one of the many reasons that we do not recommend using these Auto-Debit services. You really have no control over them, and when they screw up… you have to deal with AT&T and not your bank. A better idea? Set up bill payment with your bank! Have them send a check to AT&T. Trust us, this is better. —MEGHANN MARCO

(Photo: detinelee)


Edit Your Comment

  1. acambras says:

    I hate when these companies act like they’re doing you an extra-special favor when they rectify their own screw-ups. That “one-time courtesy” phrase chaps my ass, too.

    It’s one thing if the customer screwed up and the CSR shows mercy, but that doesn’t seem to be what happened to Jonah.

    I really hate paying money to a company and then having a representative of the company think that it’s appropriate to scold me like a little kid.

  2. banned says:

    The bad part here is it likely is a courtesy. When I worked for T-Mobile, auto-pay changes could take 2 full months to take effect and if you did not pay in the meantime, you could be disconnected and charged a reconnect fee and we weren’t as nice with those one-time courtesies. Its total BS and is why I never use auto pay services. Its even worse when its tied to your checking account because you get charged NSF also, on both sides.

  3. OnceWasCool says:

    hmmm, and they just bought Cingular. So now Cingular will get worst instead of better?

    Good Lord, when is someone on earth going to buy a cell phone company and just be fair and honest with their customers. They would have all the business almost overnight!

  4. KatieKate93 says:

    Sprint does something like this whenever I pay my bill over the phone. Every one of them says they are waiving the phone-payment fee as a one-time “courtesy”, but they all do it all the time. I think if you are rude to them over the phone, or they otherwise just don’t like you, they have it at their discretion to charge the fee. Maybe they just want to scare you into paying the bill on time?

    I’ve never been charged. I bet if this happened to Jonah again, he wouldn’t be charged either.

  5. Amy Alkon says:

    Cingular, now ATT, is awful. My t68i (Sony Ericsson), which was kind of pricey at the time, never worked for the purpose it was supposed to (and Cingular said it would), connecting my laptop to the Internet.

    Because US phones are so crappy compared to even the lowest level European ones, and because I have a really cute old Motorola in Paris for when I’m there, I never bought a new U.S. phone.

    Well, turns out my phone is obsolete, and I’ve been getting shitty reception (having to call 5 times to get a connection). Well, I call tech suupport, and the woman “helping” me doesn’t call me back (despite the info-suck at the beginning of the call – she has my number and knows when my mother lost her virginity, etc.) Then, I call and talk to some dude who’s nice, but knows nothing about the phone being obsolete, and Cingular/ATT blocks the page that talks about it from their webservers! He tells me a supervisor will call me back in 72 hours. That was on May 21.

    I want a comparable or better new phone and six free months at least to make up for years of crappy service. They were supposed to send customers a new phone according to the endgadget page – but a shittier one without Bluetooth.

    I guess I’ll just have to call the office of the president again like I did when they tried to screw me out of the $ on my giftcard, which illegally expired in California.

    I’d pay extra to do business with an ethical company with real customer service.

  6. Arlahna says:

    My husband works for Cingular/AT&T in the NOC. He’s told me so many stories about their backwards policies I’ve lost count. He says that if you want to understand what this company is like, read Dilbert.

    I’ve forwarded a link to this article to him so hopefully he’ll post something. *hint hint, hun* :)

  7. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    What cracks me up is, they will charge you an activation fee when you buy a new phone + extend your contract.. even if you’ve been a Cingular/AT&T customer for years. WTH? My line is already active and there’s nothing to activate! Just swap the SIM cards. Sheesh. If you complain enough, they’ll waive the fee. But of course, they make it look like they’re doing you a big favor by doing so.

  8. kweee says:

    Lesson 3: Never autopay any variable bill since you never know when a computer error could change your $30 monthly charge to a $30,000 debit against your checking account.

  9. mikyrok says:

    that really grinds my gears

  10. romulus says:

    Don’t be nice to the CSR just because you think they threw a bone at you with the ‘one time courtesy crap.’ Don’t take Milk-Bone pseudo-concessions as treats, they have plenty. Escalate. If they don’t escalate, tell them to escalate again. If they refuse, ask for the name of their manager. If they refuse this, find another number to call. And complain to the BBB, they have a good online system.

    Oh, and stop using AT&SBCingular.

  11. Trackback says:

    [Consumerist crosspost] With the shenanigans that go on with automatic billing, I have been giving serious thought to switching to a prepaid model with as many services as possible.

  12. proginoskes says:

    It’s never occurred to me to actually think about this problem. When I’m presented with the choice of automatically billing my CC or me paying manually each month, I’ve always chosen manual payment each time. I will look at the bill each month and then I will send payment, thank you very much. I just don’t trust the automatic mode from any vendor for any reason and I’ve never even thought about how much trouble I’d have if I chose it. In other words… People actually use this?!

  13. kerry says:

    @acambras: It chaps mine, too. A few months back Chase signed me up and started charging me for online bill pay, which I did not ask for or want. When I called to say “what’s this charge?” they said they’d remove it just this once. Fuck you! You signed me up for a service without my permission! You will remove any and all charges for your mistakes for all eternity! Gah.

  14. doodbugboodles says:

    I wouldn’t worry so much about the fee as them reporting you as late on your credit bureau.

  15. doodbugboodles says:

    @LatherRinseRepeat: I just reupped w/ them a few weeks ago, I was out of contract, and they waived all fees. I must say I liked them better as cingular though.

  16. drduran says:


    Defiantly find another number to call, but don’t bother with the BBB, they’re worthless, all they do is make sure companies “respond” to complaints, even if that response is “F— You!” it’s a response and the BBB considers it good.

  17. Msgundam84 says:

    It’s been my experience that almost ALL customer service reps that you call on the phone have absolutely no authority and no courtesy to you. Not entirely their fault, because their hands are tied, their supervisors are jerks, and they have to listen to customers whine and bitch at them all day.

    With Verizon and Cingular, I’ve gotten much better results when I stop by a store personally and talk with a manager. That’s usually the way to go.

    Oh, and when I say store, I mean “store.” Not an authorized dealer or reseller or a booth in the mall; I mean an actual “store” store. Okay?

    But where I live, Cingular service ain’t so great at all…. Bummer…and I wanted an Iphone, too.

  18. acambras says:


    Oh, Chase is terrible about that stuff. When I first got a Chase credit card, they kept pushing me to sign up for something. I kept coming back with an unequivocal “NO. Just activate the CARD. That is ALL.”

  19. dohtem says:

    I never trust those automatic bill paying things. I set up recurring alarms on Outlook and my Blackberry and then pay the bill when my alarm goes off. I make sure I have absolute control over what’s happening.

    Automatic bill pay takes the control out of my hands.

  20. Canadian Impostor says:

    @Amy Alkon: You want a new phone because your six year old phone is obsolete?

    Everyone with a six year old phone wants a new phone, open your wallet.

  21. davere says:

    I hate that line. One time I paid my bill with a credit card the afternoon of the day it was due. Next month I had a late fee. I called customer service. They said that they didn’t process my payment until 4 days after I had made my payment.

    I asked then what time I had made my payment. Then I asked them when the payment was due. The date was the same. I asked them how could that be considered late. AT&T told me that it takes them several days to process a credit card. “How is that my fault?” I asked.

    The CSR told me that she’d waive the fee “this one time only as a courtesy” and I remember saying “no, you will do this every time it happens.”

    I then stopped being an AT&T customer as soon as I could solely because of that one line that the CSR used.

  22. BillyShears says:

    Ditto on the “Never, never, so help you God ever use automatic billpay for anything. I get monthly emails from various companies telling me that it’s time to pay up, and I do that manually.

    With a credit card (Naturally, CC bills are the exception.) So if something screws up at least they don’t have money from my checking account that I have to fight tooth and nail to get back.

  23. QuirkyRachel says:

    You know, that line is actually kind of funny it’s so bad…
    On the up side, I’m moving to a building that uses RCN, so I can cancel my ATT and Comcast acounts. WOOOOHOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

  24. jeffj-nj says:

    Sometimes, the phone monkeys need to be smart enough to deviate from their scripts on their own. Sadly, they almost never are.

    I got a bill once from AT&T, inspite of not being an AT&T customer. I called and learned that I was actually an AT&T customer. I didn’t sign up for this, had no idea who did, and asked to be cancelled. They did, and waived all charges. I was promised I’d never been responsible for anything, and over one year later, I still haven’t. So that’s all fine and good, right?


    The last thing the guy on the phone said to me, after cancelling the account which everyone involved agreed had been opened fraudently was, “Thank you for choosing AT&T”.


  25. Die Schwarze Ewigkeit says:

    This same sort of thing happened to me with Cingular. They sat on a check I sent them until after my due date had passed, shut off my service for three days, cashed my check, turned my service back on and then charged me a late fee and a “service reconnect fee” or something of the sort. Since my experience with Cingular up to that point was…we’ll call it “less than stellar,” I called their 800-number, navigated myself to the section clearly labelled as the one for discontinuing service, and spoke to a rep. The rep agreed after listening to my rant to remove the service fee and late fee and then asked me “do you still want to disconnect your service?” I told her that it was implicit since I was in the area labelled for that. She replied that she couldn’t reverse the fees because “I can’t reward you for terminating your service,” and that “No, you can’t speak to a supervisor.” I was completely flabbergasted by this. No sane person can consider fixing a clerical error “a reward” and I should always be able to speak to a supervisor.

    Now, I understand the concept of at all costs customer retention, but insulting your customer and outright stealing from them does not ever fly.

  26. plim says:

    @mikeyrock: AWESOME comment =)

  27. castlecraver says:

    This is what happens when you depend upon a huge company and their crappy computerized auto-payment system to take care of your business. Paying your bills should never be a “hands-off” sort of affair. Do yourself a favor: sit down for 15 minutes a week, and just pay your damned bills yourself.

  28. homersays says:

    This is actually wrong because I have gotten tons of fees removed from my bills as I have been an AT&T / Cingular customer. I purchased a new phone not too long ago and I got the $18 upgrade fee waived by speaking to a CSR and I just changed my cell number and I got them to waive the $36 fee by speaking to another CSR.

    I think you really need to find a nice CSR, one who actually understands that everyone is not made of money. Everytime I speak to a CSR that is rude or won’t help me, I hang up. Then I call back and tell the next CSR that the last one hung up on me and I was very upset.

  29. jeffj-nj says:

    @plim: You’re right; it was. And I would’ve missed it, had you not said so.

  30. yg17 says:

    And crap like this is why we left Cingular the day our contract expired. Expired at midnight, we were at the T-Mobile store at 8 AM switching.

    T-Mobile kicks ass. What’s really handy is we can pay the bill right there in the store and get a receipt stating that our balance is $0.00, so if they ever give us any shit (which they haven’t) we’ve got proof that we paid it and paid it on time.

  31. mikecolione says:

    @ oncewascool – Att didn’t buy Cingular, Cingular was already owned by SBC (which renamed themselves ATT after they bought ma bell.

    @ Amy Alkon – Sony’s t68i is a “GAIT” phone, meaning it used tdma & gsm technology. It was meant as a cross over for the change in tech, not a long term device. That was back in 2000-2002 time period. The phone specs does not include the option to tether. Not even close as it barely had internet access for the phone itself. You probably could get a phone at a special price (probably free) if you went into a store.

  32. CSR says:

    Yeah, the “one time courtesy” phrase is one that is overused, and misused. Most of the time, I wince when I hear my co-workers saying it.

    The only time I can recall using something like that phrase was when I had someone call in and admit they’d paid late, but would I please credit the late fee back. They hadn’t been late in over a year, so I credited it back as a courtesy. I didn’t say “one time”, because what if they aren’t late again until 5 years from now? It would be beyond silly to refuse to credit it again.

  33. Havok154 says:

    We got rid of Cingular primarily due to the fact they would overcharge us EVERY month, and we’d have to call and they would credit us. One month, they retracted the credit, which ment we didn’t pay all of our bill and they turned our phones off for 3 days. Until the day we dropped them, they overcharged us.

  34. macinjosh says:

    I’m gonna say again that Cing has always been nice to me. They’ve allowed me to retroactively upgrade my data plan to avoid excessive overage fees (two instances, totaling a couple hundred bucks in savings). They also matched amazon’s price on a PDA phone, saving me another $200. Now that I think of it, I was charged $18 for the upgrade (new SIM). Ah well. I’m still way ahead. :)

  35. shdwsclan says:

    From what I can tell you, cingular’s system is very weak in itself. Skillful hacking allows you to make yourself a phone number from which you can make free phonecalls from on your cellphone, their system do not fully monitor their network and cannot block calls, nor can they block number from calling you…nor anything that Tmobil can actually do….

  36. omgyouresexy says:

    At the school gym the other day, the guy at the equipment/clothing checkout window was arguing with a student who claims that he had not checked out two shirts in the past. The guy at the checkout counter eventually said somethign along the lines of “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll do you a favor and go ahead and give you the benefit of the doubt and take those two shirts off your account.” The student took offense to that, I would I have if it had been me. I think there’s some kind of power trip some people go on when they know they’re in a position to make your problems go away, no matter whether or not it’s their job to help you. I wanted to mouth off something to that old man about how pointless it was to argue over two shirts worth about $4 total.

  37. xplnlife says:

    I am an old school att customer with tdma.

    I have a DIGITL ADVTG 350 plan that includes 1050 MINUTES, mob 2 mob, unlim night and weekends for $39.99. I am now on a month to month contract.

    I have been battling with cingular/att to get a comparable plan that is also MONTH TO MONTH. I have been offered 450 mins w/ 200 bonus and a free new KRZR phone for 39.99. I was told month to month is not an option.

    This sucks lily white butt in my oppinion.

    I am looking for advice on how to get what I want from this company!!! Does anyone have any experience with this situation.

    ARG. save me.