Why won’t AT&T refund Mom’s phone?

By | January 8th, 2016

Jamie LaMoreaux’s parents’ AT&T phone doesn’t work and they want to return it. Why won’t the company let them?

Question: My parents, who are 80 and 87, have an AT&T phone that won’t charge. They took it to an AT&T store where they were told they had to get a new one. So they did, paying a $20 “upgrade” fee. But they were not told about the extra $40 fee or the two-year contract extension.

When my mother called to find out about the fee she was told to go back to the store and they might consider refunding it. But they refused. We sent an email to the CEO, and his secretary called my mother back.

She was told they had received too many free upgrades and were ineligible for another one; plus, she would not receive a refund. There was no attempt to address the unrequested contract extension or the fact that my parents were unaware of any fees other than what they paid for in person. They just wanted the fee refunded and extension removed.

My parents have been good customers of AT&T for a very long time. Now they just want to leave and get a pay-as-you-go phone. Can you help them? — Jamie LaMoreaux, Orlando

Answer: Are you telling me that your parents just wanted to fix a phone, but that AT&T sold them a new unit, and failed to mention the contract terms and a fee? Come on.

I wasn’t there when this transaction happened, but I’ll bet the fee and the contract terms were disclosed in the fine print of the contract they signed. But who reads that? If you’re a retiree and you just want the darned phone to work, you’re not going to pull out the reading glasses and study the paperwork. Nor should you be expected to. One of the reasons you go in person to take care of these things is to be — well — taken care of.

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Everything should be clearly disclosed verbally and in writing.

I paid a personal visit to AT&T’s corporate headquarters in Dallas on your behalf and talked to a representative about your parents’ case. The company pulled up your parents’ records, which showed this isn’t the first complaint they’ve had about AT&T. In fact, the company has already waived more than $300 in fees over the course of its relationship with your parents. I’m not sure if that says more about your parents or more about AT&T.

Disclosure: I am an AT&T wireless customer. I pay my sky-high cell phone bill every month and am probably no happier than your parents about it. I have personally witnessed the upselling and nearly agreed to a new service plan when a representative failed to mention the two-year contract extension.

I told the AT&T representative I met with that there has to be a better way of delivering wireless service to customers than like this. By the way, if you’re ever unhappy with your AT&T service, you can try sending a brief, polite email to one of their executives. I list them on my site.

Meanwhile, your sister conducted her own investigation and found that a new battery, not a new phone, would have easily fixed your parents’ handset. How frustrating.

This is one of those situations where the company is both right and wrong. It correctly charged your parents for their service but it also failed to adequately disclose all the terms of the contract to two octogenarians.

As a gesture of goodwill, AT&T offered to refund the fee and cancel the contract. Or your parents could keep the phones and agree to the two-year contract. Your parents accepted the refund and cancellation.

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This story was first published Aug. 17, 2015.

  • Lee

    Whatever the reasons here, when I read about elderly people navigating the world these days of mobile phones, websites, company voice mail selections when you call, admonishments by some to only use their websites (which my elderly dad cannot do any of these things and hasn’t for many years), I really worry about what is going to be the largest elderly population in the history of the United States coming up – the baby boomers.

    I have had to deal with every company, health insurance, banks, etc for my parents from the time they were in their early 80s. It became increasingly difficult for them to figure out how to use all the technology and decipher the correct number to select on a call, etc. I do wonder how this will all evolve over time as people lose hearing, have compromised eyesight and comprehension problems. While somethings have become easier, others have become more complicated with the technology.

    I go into my cell phone carrier shops and they almost look at people over the age of 40 as if they have two heads. Many of the customer reps are impatient with people who don’t immediately understand all the gobbledygook – I’m glad this worked out for this couple but someone needs to be continuing to watch how they manage other issues in their lives as well.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    How long are we going to continue and see these old articles? I thought they were serving as filler while people enjoyed the holidays but it’s not Christmas break any more.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi Joe,

    I forwarded your question to Chris, and he says we’re almost done.

    If I may, I’d like to suggest that your question would have made a better letter to the editor than a blog comment. For future reference, here’s a link:


  • MF

    Perhaps this is a general matter that the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau ought to consider; simplified contracts in plain language for people over 60? As you enumerate, there are many of these ridiculous fine print/adhesion contracts in many industries that don’t benefit consumers, and likely hurt the elderly of limited financial means disproportionately.

  • Barthel

    Life was so much simpler when there was one phone company, except in some rural areas. Bell Systems, or whatever they called it years ago had one plan with a fixed monthly rate, and customers paid for long distance calls based on location and duration of call.

  • RightNow9435

    The real solution to all this is Pay As You Go/Prepaid…..don’t have a contract and never would. It doesn’t have any real advantages and many disadvantages such as what happened to these people. As for that “free” phone, you aren’t getting it free…it’s built into the contract price.

  • AAGK

    Just because people are retired doesn’t mean they can’t read. Retirees are like all of us, they don’t want to read boring fine print when what they are being told sounds good. If ATT has had to waive $300 already then it’s time the daughters stepped in to assist with some of the decision -making. As I told ATT yesterday on the phone, complaining @ my bill, if there is anything on my account that has me paying more than I used to, they should just assume I never agreed to it.

  • LonnieC

    I agree, but I disagree. Yes, these contracts of adhesion should be both simplified and made more balanced. However, while I applaud the thought, I don’t think such changes should be limited to those over a certain age. If valid, legally binding contracts can be created for the elderly, they should be used for all consumers. It’s not just the elderly who need a break. Does anyone really read and understand every provision in every contract or set of “terms and conditions” that are constantly presented to us every time we make a purchase? I don’t think so. We are getting to a point where standard consumer contracts are so complex and one-sided that it may take legislative action to “balance the scales”. And good luck with that.

  • Extramail

    How about simplified language for everyone? It’s an incredible waste of paper that Verizon, at least, prints out when you upgrade a phone and I’m pretty sure that less than 10% of the people read all of that before signing.

  • LDVinVA

    I worked for AT&T Long Lines when the breakup began. Our mantra was “One Bell System…it works!” and it did.

  • cscasi

    Or, just let us all know if there is not enough “new” material to put out.

  • pauletteb

    Seems to me that the “problem” is more with the writer’s parents than with AT&T.

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