Tricks of the Trade: Cell Phone Industry Appears to Employ Shady Practices

Cellular phone customers are often an abused consumer group. From paying for unwanted services, being pressured into multi-year contracts and suffering fraudulent billing, complaints are high in this industry and that probably won’t change anytime soon. It is still a burgeoning sector of the economy that ties both innovation and trendiness to a device that has become so ubiquitous that carrying one is as common as carrying a wallet or wearing a watch.

These issues all became magnified after an eye-opening column in the Dallas Morning News revealed a letter from an anonymous AT&T employee. The letter detailed a fundamentally flawed process and culture at the cell phone giant that, if true, appears to reward unethical business practices geared toward mobile phone customers. This is (allegedly) due to a strongly performance-based approach toward its employees, in which pressure to upsell and increase customers and sales trumps any effort to provide the best, most honest level of customer service.

From their Watchdog column, Dallas Morning News writers Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez present the anonymous letter and then provide some perspective on it – including a response from the company, and an opinion from a law school professor. As for the letter itself, here is an excerpt:

“It’s very frustrating to be an ethical rep there anymore, as you are constantly under their scrutiny for not meeting numbers. The only way to meet these numbers is to be a liar and a sleaze. Three-quarters of my call center is on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine just to deal with the company. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Not good, and neither is the rest of the content of the missive. If true, the accusations confirm what many people already believe to be true about their cell phone providers – that they purposely try to bilk their customers without any repercussions or remorse.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, there are also blatant fraudsters working outside of the larger companies. This week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that six conspirators have been charged for fraud in a cell phone “cramming” scheme that took place between 2011-2013. As reported in the Consumerist:

The six people charged in this scheme have been accused of working together to subscribe millions of mobile customers to horoscope or celebrity gossip services that they had never asked for, for $10 per month. Two of the conspirators worked for a premium text billing service based in Australia, and they were asked to write a program that would generate fake authorizations to bill mobile carriers for content, so it would appear that customers had authorized these services that they had never heard of.

The message to mobile and cell phone consumers? Check your monthly bill carefully, and report any suspicious activity. And hope that the only fraud you encounter is coming from a shady criminal operated out on the fringes of the industry, rather than the customer service rep you are hoping will help you.