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The Watchdog: Painful labor of an AT&T customer

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

I am preparing my monthly report of complaints that The Watchdog sends to AT&T CEO/President/Chairman/Big Kahuna Randall Stephenson. But there was one emergency complaint that could not wait. I sent it to AT&T immediately upon receipt.

What was it? A photograph of a woman in the hospital about to have a baby, calling AT&T for the umpteenth time to get her bill fixed.

The frustrated look on elementary school guidance counselor Julie Thrift's face as she talks on her hospital room phone is one that I have seen on the faces of a thousand or more sad people lost in AT&T's customer service hell.

Kitty Thrift photographed her daughter, JulieThrift, while she was on the phone from a hospital maternity ward, so angry with AT&T customer service that she called to complain during early stages of labor last month at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.Courtesy
Kitty Thrift photographed her daughter, JulieThrift, while she was on the phone from a hospital maternity ward, so angry with AT&T customer service that she called to complain during early stages of labor last month at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Courtesy

Only those folks weren't going into labor.

What's the story behind this photo? How does it come down to this: a race to fix her bill before her contractions get too painful? The latest saga in my #ShameATT campaign.

The email from Julie's mother, Kitty, begins: "This is my daughter IN LABOR trying to resolve yet ANOTHER billing issue with AT&T. Absolutely ridiculous."

Join the crowd. My report about to go to the Big Kahuna for November's complaints includes similar pleas from Bob, Laura, Catherine, Gary, John, Anthony, Carol, Phyllis, Joyce, Bill, Thomas and Mike. Real people who've exhausted themselves calling AT&T and send me an email that I can paste into the Big Kahuna report. This month: 18 pages.

But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Julie is sitting beside her bed. The Richardson woman is wrapped in a blue blanket to ward off chills. She looks sadly down at her files laid out neatly on the hospital bed. One is her time-off, maternity leave folder for her school district job. The other folder is her AT&T file. Her cellphone is nearby in case family members call.

For many months, she says, she's had to make almost monthly calls to find out why the price keeps changing on her U-verse bill.

"My AT&T bill is always a surprise," she would tell me days later after she returned home with a most adorable new family member. "It's at least a one-hour-a-month phone call where you have someone with a script. They always say, 'You've reached the right person. I am the one who can solve this problem for you.'"

Although this is the first time I've met Julie, I consider her a true citizen of my Watchdog Nation consumer rights movement. She does it right.

"I take notes every time I'm on the phone, who I talked to, when the conversation started, when it ended, what was said. And I ask them, 'Are you taking notes?' They assure me they're taking notes. However, when I talk to the next person, they say, 'No, I don't see any mention of your last phone call.'

"I ask for employee ID number and a reference number. And they say, 'No, we don't give that out.'"

Back to the hospital, Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. Julie didn't intentionally wait until the last minute to pay her bill. She tried to get help a few days before. After several tries, one AT&T phone rep promised to call her back. He never did. Another promised to email her. Same nothing result.

"She told one rep, 'I'm in the hospital. Do you hear what I'm saying? I'm in the hospital.'"

Julie says, "She probably didn't believe me, because she didn't act as if she cared at all."

The bill was due the day of her baby's birth. She didn't want her baby entering a world where the first thing that happens is his mommy gets a late fee.

Little Noah was born that night, at 6 pounds, 3 ounces and almost 20 inches long. Absolutely adorable. The AT&T baby.

What happened next?

After I sent AT&T the photo, members of the Office of the Big Kahuna called several times, but were unable to reach Julie while she was still in the hospital. But a couple of days later, she talked to Jeff, who offered her a better deal, with a longer contract and a lower price. She also got a $50 credit for her troubles.

That should buy a few diapers.

An AT&T spokesman tells me, "This was an unfortunate circumstance, and we have apologized to our customer for this experience, and we have resolved the issue."

The new mom says, "They don't care if what they say is true and consistent and right."

Welcome to the world, Noah, the AT&T baby. Looks like you have a mom who knows how to fight for you.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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