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How to Kill a Phone Bill

New phone service? Avoid the double-billing trap

Q: Three years ago I switched long-distance phone service from Excel Communications to SBC (now AT&T). Excel continued to bill me for three months, more than $100 in charges. I complained, but it wasn’t fixed and my credit rating was damaged. What can I do? —Elizabeth LeBourhis, Fresno, California

A: In my almost two decades of consumer reporting, long-distance companies probably have been the biggest source of complaints. A switchboardful of new carriers appeared almost overnight in the 1980s after the industry was deregulated. Broadly speaking, customer service hasn’t been the same since. The ’80s boom was followed by years of turmoil, as company swallowed company or went bankrupt trying. Excel, which became one of the biggest of the upstarts, went bankrupt and changed owners twice in just the past six years.

Most telecom companies find more profit in serving businesses; residential customers don’t get as much attention. True to form, my calls to the Excel customer-service line dead-ended at a voice message recorder. Squeaky Wheel Rule No. 34: If one number fails, try another. Excel’s investor-relations office answered the phone right away and put me in touch with Rose Swinford, head of customer service, who bumped me to marketing chief Chad Grosser. After some digging, he found your records and discovered that the transfer of service from Excel to SBC had never hit the screens of Excel’s account-cancellation folks. (Who knew it takes two departments to end a relationship?) Faced with the facts, Grosser removed the charges from your account and promised to notify the collection agency and credit bureaus of Excel’s error. You also should expect a letter of apology. Just to make sure your credit score is restored, send a copy of the letter to the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

To head off such situations, here are a few tips.

When switching companies, call the new one and the old one. And jot down the time of any call, the agent’s name, and ID number.

If you can’t resolve a billing complaint, don’t ignore the bill. If possible, pay with a credit card and then report the billing error to your credit card company in a letter with as much documentation as you’ve got. The charge will be put on hold while someone investigates, collection agents won’t interrupt your dinner, and your credit score will be safe.

Don’t assume that your credit report will be cleaned up after errors are detected. Check it yourself. To get a free copy, call 877-322-8228 or go to www.annualcreditreport.com.

Ron Burley is a consumer reporter and author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006).

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