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A Costly Nuisance

, , , , | Working | April 27, 2019

(My elderly mother tells me that she is thinking of changing her phone number, because she’s been getting prank phone calls from “a young-sounding lady,” and it has been getting worse; now more young people are ringing her with the same rubbish. It turns out that she’s used her answering machine to record one of the calls, and it is indeed a group of teens, giggling in the background, saying stupid stuff. It seems to happen around 4:00 pm every second or third day. Mum goes ahead and changes her phone number, and even pays extra to have it unlisted. She rings to tell me the new number. Problem solved! Nope. The next day she rings back; the miscreants called again ON HER NEW NUMBER! I ring the phone provider, and after getting Mum to authorise me as her spokesperson, we have the following conversation:)

Telecommunication Company: “There’s not much we can do about nuisance calls. Are they threatening in any way?”

Me: “No, not threatening, just annoying. But the problem isn’t so much the calls; it’s that they’ve persisted despite her getting a new number.”

Telecommunication Company: “Well, who has she told her new number to? It’s unlisted, so we wouldn’t give it to anyone.”

Me: “She only got it yesterday; she hasn’t told many people yet. Only my sister and me.”

Telecommunication Company: “Well, who have you told? The caller must have got it from somewhere!”

Me: “We’ve told no one! This is now officially scary. Can’t you just tell us who rang at [time] today?”

Telecommunication Company: “Sorry, no. Privacy and all that.”

Me: “What about our privacy? It’s obviously been breached!”

Telecommunication Company: “Would you like to change numbers again? It’ll be [fee], plus [extra] to have it unlisted.”

Me: “And how would that help? They obviously got the new number somehow, hours after it had been changed!”

Telecommunication Company: “Well, I’m sorry; there’s nothing more we can do.”

(Australia has a telecommunications ombudsman, an independent government organisation that you can contact if the company doesn’t fix your problem. I am preparing a complaint to them when I ask to see Mum’s telephone bill to get the required information — account number etc. Looking through the bill, I notice a $19.50 charge at the bottom that I don’t recognise. Previous bills also have the same line item, but different costs.)

Me: “Mum, what’s this charge here?”

Mum: “Oh, that started appearing on the bill a few months ago. I thought it was a new service. I’ve been meaning to get that cancelled.”

(I jump on the Internet and find out that it’s a service that allows someone to ring a specific FreeCall number, that actually calls a normal number and charges the call to that bill. Their example is to give it to your school kid and they can ring that number rather than make a reverse-charge call to the normal number every time. It cost $10 a month, and 50c a call from anywhere in Australia. You can see where this is heading… Furious, I call the company and ask for a supervisor.)

Telecommunication Company: *after re-re-re-authorising me talking about Mum’s account* “Yes, you signed up for that service seven months ago.”

Me: “No, she definitely did not. We demand a refund for the last seven months of all charges.”

Telecommunication Company: “But the phone calls have been made. We might have been able to refund the $10 service charge, but we won’t refund the calls.”

Me: “What calls? Where were the calls made from?”

Telecommunication Company: *privacy blah blah blah*

Me: “Sorry, that won’t wash. If this was authorised to access this account, then this account is allowed to know about the calls that this account is paying for.”

Telecommunication Company: “Okay, then. They were all calls from [Boarding School] in [City in another state] to [Another City in a different state].”

Me: “How is that possible? Shouldn’t the call arrive at the number associated with this account? What is this account doing paying for a call to somewhere else?”

Telecommunication Company: “Hmm. You’re right; the call actually ended up at your account’s phone.”

Me: “What is the phone number of where the call started? What is the phone number of where the phone call was supposed to go to?”

Telecommunication Company: *privacy blah blah blah*

Me: “Can you do me a favour? Can you check the notes on this account? In particular, can you see where a complaint about nuisance phone calls caused this account to have to change to a new phone number? And how that new phone number was unlisted? And how, next thing, the nuisance phone calls didn’t stop?”

Telecommunication Company: “Hmm, I see. Sorry, there’s nothing we can do about nuisance phone calls.”

Me: “Well, in this case, you can. Not only did your company make a mistake and connect this service to the wrong phone number, not only did your company not mention this mistake in any previous contact, not only did your phone company charge my mother for this mistake for the last seven months, PLUS an unlisted phone number that didn’t fix the problem, but your company has been charging my mother for the exact nuisance phone calls that she’s been receiving! First, she gets nuisance calls, and then she has to pay for them?”

Telecommunication Company: “I see what you mean. Obviously, a mistake has been made.”

Me: “This call is being recorded, right? Here is what I need you to do. 1) Refund all the charges made to this account associated with the service, including phone calls. 2) Refund all the charges associated with my mother having to change phone numbers, including for the unlisted number. 3) Cancel all future charges for having an unlisted number. 4) This is the most important: [Company] will contact the number of the person who organised this service, tell them that a mistake has been made, and that their delinquent child took advantage of the mistake to harass and annoy an innocent old lady. 5) Finally, [Company] will write a formal apology to my mother, describing how it happened and what they’ve done to fix it, including the results of that phone call.”

Telecommunication Company: “I’m not sure we can do that.”

Me: “In that case, I’m writing a formal complaint to the ombudsman. This is completely 100% [Telecommunication Company]’s fault for allowing this delinquency to happen.”

(A week later, a letter did indeed arrive from the company, apologising and describing what happened. Apparently, a parent had set up the service to allow their child, who was boarding interstate, to make calls back home. They were surprised that they hadn’t actually received any calls from said student, but figured things were going well. When they found out what happened, both they and the student passed on their apologies. The next month the next bill arrived. It contained seven months’ worth of refunds, plus a rebate for the cost of the private number. That rebate has appeared in all bills since.)

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