Loc Nguyen did a double-take when he saw the charges from his wireless company. His AT&T bill was wrong — to the tune of $499.
How could that be? AT&T had promised him he’d only spend $36 for his new iPhone 11.
Nguyen says he spent hours trying to fix the problem, “but AT&T isn’t giving me credit.”
Can a call to a consumer advocate fix this problem? Maybe.
Phone companies usually get their bills right. But Nguyen’s case was unusual. He wanted to port three phone lines to AT&T. A representative told him that if he added another line, he’d only spend $36 for the next 36 months.
When AT&T had a different interpretation of the “deal,” he ended up with a hefty bill.
There are ways you can avoid a similar misunderstanding, which I’ll get to in a minute. But will Nguyen be able to get his refund?
How AT&T got a bill wrong by $499
OK, so how exactly does AT&T get a bill wrong by $499?
Nguyen says he was moving three of his cell phones to AT&T. While he was in a chat session, a representative made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He told me that adding an iPhone11 and a fourth line would cost $1 per month over 36 months,” he says. “It seemed like a good deal.”
The AT&T rep said it would take three billing cycles for the credit to show up.
“But after three months, I didn’t get the credit,” says Nguyen. “Instead of paying $36 for the iPhone11 — $1 a month for 36 months — I’m paying $500, or $13.89 per month.
Nguyen was shocked.
“I spent many hours contacting AT&T through phone calls and store visits, and they would not honor their sales quote,” he says.
“I would like AT&T to credit me what we already paid and only charge us $1 per month for 36 months for the iPhone11, as agreed,” he adds.
Wait, $1 for an iPhone from AT&T? Is this some kind of scam?
My first instinct: Nguyen fell for a scam.
A search for the $1 iPhone offer suggested that it might be.
By the way, this one was a scam back in 2019. But a closer review of his correspondence with AT&T (I’ll get to that in a sec) shows that the offer Nguyen received was legitimate.
Still, this may be the right moment to reflect on this universal truth. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Nguyen’s $1 iPhone offer seemed scammy, even though it was coming directly from AT&T.
He should have been careful.
What does the contract say?
I wondered what the contract between Nguyen and AT&T said about this. So I asked him to send me his documentation.
Nguyen couldn’t find the document, but he sent me a transcript of the chat between him and an AT&T representative named Hernando.
I’ll skip to the part where he gets to the offer.
[Hernando] : I really appreciate your valuable time and patience with me today. I was checking here and I found out that all devices have arrived successfully to AT&T. The account promo will run correctly. As a friendly reminder, your trade-in credits will be applied within 2-3 billing cycles and they will be retroactive, this means that we are going to receive credits for the months we did not receive them! The credits will be applied over 36 months! Does it sound good?
[Nguyen] : and my new line the phone should be a dollar right? (iphone 11)
[Nguyen] : it will be retroactive too?
[Hernando] : That is totally correct!
But what does the actual contract say? Nguyen didn’t send me the paperwork, but it’s likely that the contract would say something else. And AT&T was following the contract — not Hernando’s electronic discount pledge.
How does AT&T billing work?
The Nguyen case pulls the curtain on one of the least-understood aspects of wireless carriers: How does billing really work?
When Nguyen signed up to port his numbers to AT&T, a representative set up his account with the new phone numbers and the iPhone. AT&T automates most of its billing systems. But when it comes to special offers or coupons, or an offer made by a representative, there’s usually a human agent involved at some point in the process.
Nguyen then would have received a bill for the first month. According to AT&T, the monthly billing cycle covers everything from the day a statement starts to the day it ends. It bills monthly rates one full month in advance. Every customer has a recurring bill start date and bill end date.
For example, if your monthly billing cycle begins on the 21st of each month, your bill will reflect monthly charges through the 20th of the following month.
So it was fair of Nguyen to assume that after he received a bill for $13.89 per month, he would have to pay the same amount, on the same day, for 36 months.
What to do when an employee makes a promise that the company won’t keep?
Incorrect AT&T billing happens a lot more frequently than you would imagine.
We had a similar case with an AT&T rebate offer last year. And a few years before, I also wrote about a missing AT&T refund that reminded me of Nguyen’s case.
What can you do if employees don’t follow through on their promises? Here’s how to prevent a misunderstanding:
1. Make sure the contract says what you think it says
The contract you sign governs the transaction. Full stop. So read your agreement and retain a copy for your records. And if the contract doesn’t say what you think it should, ask someone to explain it to you before signing.
2. Keep everything in writing
Many of these cases fall apart because there’s no way to prove what an employee said. Nguyen was smart to hold on to the chat transcript. Does the company prefer doing business by phone? If you have to, and if it’s legal in your state, record the call.
3. Appeal your case in writing to a supervisor
Of course, we publish the names, numbers and emails of the managers at AT&T. A brief, written appeal with your paper trail should be enough to clear this up.
How to contact AT&T with a complaint
If your AT&T bill is wrong, you have several options for fixing it.
Review your bill and contract
Before you start, check your bill and contract to ensure the invoice is incorrect. You don’t want to go through all of this only to discover AT&T was right.
Fill out the form
AT&T has a form on its website that allows you to submit all of your information. You’ll need your AT&T account number plus the number of your credit or debit card and your bank routing and account numbers. Include a brief explanation of the problem along with the date and amount of the disputed transaction. AT&T will ask for your full name, your phone number, and an image of your credit card.
According to AT&T, it can take up to five days for you to receive a response. Don’t stop paying your bill in the meantime since that could lead to a “service disruption.” In other words, AT&T will cut you off if you fail to pay your bill, even if you have an ongoing dispute.
If that doesn’t work, file an appeal
If AT&T can’t fix your bill, you’ll have to appeal your case to an AT&T executive. Your appeal should be brief and polite. Include all of the previous correspondence. Give the executives some time to review your case. If you don’t hear back, please contact my consumer advocacy team. We might be able to help.
Is there an AT&T bill dispute phone number?
Readers often ask me if there’s a hotline for AT&T billing disputes.
You can always call (800) 331-0500 or 611 from your AT&T wireless phone. That will connect you to AT&T’s customer service department. But there’s no special billing hotline to call.
I would recommend staying off the phone if your AT&T bill is wrong. That’s because phone calls don’t create a paper trail. There’s no way to prove what a representative said — or didn’t say — in a phone call. However, a chat transcript or email thread can establish all the proof you need.
So even though you can call AT&T about your billing dispute, you probably shouldn’t. You’re at a tremendous disadvantage unless you can record the conversation. You can’t do that legally in many states.
What went wrong with this AT&T bill?
If AT&T offers you an iPhone for $1 a month, it should honor its offer. The chat transcript sure looks like an open-and-shut case.
I did some digging and found that the offer made by Hernando wasn’t even on the AT&T site anymore. Instead, there were dozens of similar offers involving iPhones. I found them to be confusing. And I know that if I’m confused, then chances are, some customers and maybe even employees are confused, too.
So what happened?
Sometimes, companies just make mistakes when they handle your paperwork. And Nguyen’s was a somewhat complicated transaction because it involved porting three numbers and adding a fourth.
It looks like someone just pushed the wrong button.
AT&T: “We’re sorry this happened’
Will Nguyen have to pay that $499 bill? I shared his complaint with AT&T and asked my contact that question.
I thought this was a borderline case. If AT&T could show me a signed contract showing that Nguyen agreed to pay $500 for the extra line and the porting, it might get to keep his money. But if not, he stood an excellent chance of getting a refund.
Here’s how AT&T responded to Nguyen:
Thank you for sharing your recent experience with us. We’re so sorry this happened, and we’d like to fill you in on what we’ve done to address the matter.
We apologized for the experience of the promotion for adding a line and getting a device for $1.
I applied the credit for $499, which left you with a positive balance of $81.
Please allow one to two cycles for the bill to reflect changes to the line ending in [xxx]. This credit settles the dispute.
In other words, someone pushed the wrong button.
Have you ever received a wrong AT&T bill?
How did you fix it? Do you have any advice for other readers who may also have an incorrect phone bill? Scroll down to leave your comment.
About the art
Artist Aren Elliott imagined iPhones going into a meat grinder and getting turned into cold cash for AT&T shareholders. “It’s not something you want to have happen to your phone,” he says.
About the video
The modern art we recently saw in the Centre Pompidou in Paris inspired our explainer video. Producer Iden Elliott wanted something snappy but fun. “After all, isn’t that how a modern artist would see a billing error — as fun?” he says.