This AT&T phone never worked. Why are they sending me to a collection agency?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Michael Rose returns his AT&T phone, he expects the billing to stop. But it doesn’t. Can he make the charges end before they ding his credit score?

Question

I recently had AT&T fiber internet installed in my home. One of their salespeople said I would gain advantages by switching my cell phone service from Verizon to AT&T. He sold me an AT&T iPhone 13 Pro Max to match the one I had recently purchased from Verizon.

As it turns out, he never activated the new phone after telling me he did. So the phone never worked. Following many hours spent with AT&T on the phone and at two of their stores, I arranged to return the new phone to AT&T, since I was still within the return window. 

AT&T sent me a prepaid mailing box. I mailed the phone back to AT&T several weeks ago. 

But I continued to receive bills for the wireless account and the phone. I have made many attempts to rectify the billing situation. In my last conversation with AT&T, a representative said the billing would cease. But yesterday, I received another bill for the phone and service.

AT&T is threatening to ruin my credit rating by turning the billing over to a collection agency. Can you help me? — Michael Rose, Altadena, Calif.

Answer

AT&T should have sent you an activated phone. If it couldn’t, then it certainly shouldn’t have billed you. But unfortunately, that’s not how it works. A phone company starts billing you the moment you order a new phone — working or not.

But let’s take a step back. You were installing new fiber internet, and a salesperson offered a new cell phone because you would “gain advantage”? I don’t know of any technological advantages you might gain. Your internet won’t run any faster, and your phone won’t do more. AT&T was just trying to sell you an internet and phone bundle. (Related: Is your phone card phony? 5 ways you can tell.)

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There might be a financial advantage to bundling. But it’s not a decision you would typically make when you’re having something installed. Instead, you might want to consider carefully any benefit of switching from Verizon. Then make a decision when you’re not under pressure. (Related: AT&T offered him an iPhone 11 for $36, but now he’s paying $500.)

The importance of a paper trail

It looks like you tried to resolve this by talking to someone at AT&T. Unfortunately, when you talk to someone, there’s no evidence of the conversation (unless you record it). I always recommend creating a paper trail by sending an email or text message. I also list the AT&T executive contacts on this site.

This is not the first case involving a problematic phone return. I asked AT&T what you should have done, and it recommended calling its customer care department at (800) 331-0500 or 611 from a mobile device. I think that’s fine, as long as you record the conversation (if it’s allowed). (Related: We lost our house in a fire, so why is AT&T sending us a phone bill?)

I contacted AT&T on your behalf. They reviewed your case. “We’ve issued credits for the remaining balance on this customer’s closed account, and he is satisfied,” a spokeswoman told me. You received your refund, and your account is now closed.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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