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I pay other people’s cell phone or cable bills

by William McGaughey, Jr.


One day, as I was checking my monthly bank statement, I noticed that a charge of $166.30 was made to my checking account on December 23, 2010 referencing Sprint. I am not a Sprint customer. I called the telephone number printed on the statement only to learn that the call could not be completed as dialed. I called Sprint to ask for an explanation. Someone had paid their bill over the telephone, giving my checking account number and routing number for the account from which the payment would be made. Who was this, I asked. The customer representative would not tell me, citing “privacy concerns”. Sprint was protecting the privacy of its customers.

On January 25, 2011, the same “customer” (or person calling from the same phone) paid two other Sprint bills. One was for $212.17 and the other for $451.61. Elsewhere in my statement, I spotted a charge of $308.39 referencing Qwest. I use Qwest for my land-line telephone but the charge is around $40 per month. Again, my call to the referenced telephone number could not be completed as dialed. Again, a customer representative told me that the payment had been called in. Someone had the account number and routing number for my checking account.

It’s not difficult to obtain such information. If I give a store clerk a check in payment of merchandise, the clerk can jot down the account number and the routing number of my account. It’s printed on the check. What is to prevent that person from paying all his friends’ cell-phone bills? Did Sprint or Qwest have some other measure to make sure that the caller was authorized to charge my checking account? Evidently not. The customer representative admitted as much. Qwest, like Sprint, would not tell me who was charging my bank account because that would violate privacy rules. I was advised to contact the fraud unit of my bank to seek restitution of the money stolen from me.

I did call the fraud unit of U.S. Bank. A case was opened. My total loss was $1,128.47.

The fraud representative advised me to go immediately to a bank branch and close my checking account, leaving enough money in the current account to cover existing bills.

Would U.S. Bank eventually learn the identity of the thieves so it could tell me? No, this information would remain confidential. The only way to find out who was charging my account was to file a police report. The local police might decide to investigate and prosecute the theft. They could then subpoena Sprint and Qwest, forcing them to reveal who had made the fraudulent charges. On a reverse yellow-pages directory, I learned that the telephone numbers used by the thieves were associated with addresses in North Carolina and New Jersey.

I called the Minnesota Attorney General’s office to seek information about ”privacy laws” that protected the thieves. The man who answered the phone did not know the answer to that question. However, the Attorney General’s office had published a booklet giving steps that victims of identity theft should take. Besides contacting the local police, I should contact the FBI, Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and perhaps some other organizations. When I called, an FBI representative referred me to a web site where I might leave general information about my situation.

I did visit the bank’s branch office and had a long conversation with the customer service representative. I needed to decide if I wanted to close the account. Certainly that would help to protect me against further charges by the individuals who had accessed my accounts. However, I had at least twenty automatic payments to utility companies and other vendors tied to my checking account.

Was there a way that the bank could change all the authorizations at one time?

The customer representative checked and learned that this could not be done. I would have to contact all the vendors separately, both to switch the autopay authorizations to my new checking account and to make sure that there was enough money in the account if the change could not be made in time. I knew that several bills on autopay were due to be paid in the next few days. I kept the old account open to accommodate those charges.

Why not simply keep the existing checking account? The customer service representative told me that the bank would reimburse me for thefts already made from my checking account; but, if this happened in the future, I would be on my own. The bank would not reimburse me for unauthorized charges to my existing account if I kept it open. I decided it was prudent to close the checking account and open a new one.

What about the overdraft protection account associated with my checking account? It was a great personal convenience to have $10,000 of credit to cover checks and other charges made to my checking account if the account was overdrawn. After closing the account, I learned that the bank would give me only $500 of overdraft protection for the new account.

I was quite unhappy about this. Why should I be punished for being a victim of someone else’s thievery. The customer service representative agreed with me. She called the department in charge of overdraft protection but this department refused to increase the loan limit back to $10,000. I was advised to come back tomorrow to see if there was a way to open another line of credit tied to my checking account.

After leaving the bank, I visited the 4th precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis police department. A man at the front counter took information from me about the theft. He said that the police were swamped by cases of white-collar crime. The loss had to exceed $10,000 before it would become a priority for investigation. (So much for the idea that we would eventually learn the thieves’ identity when Sprint and Qwest were subpoenaed.) The officer shared my disgust with a system that would allow people to pay bills over the phone if they had other people’s banking information. He proposed moving to another country. But at least my case now had a report and a report number.

I spent the rest of the afternoon calling organizations whose bills I paid through autopay. Each company’s system was different. One credit-card company was able to change to a new account over the phone. Another required me to fill out a new form sent by mail and include a voided check. Another had me make the changes on its website. The change in account numbers could take anywhere between a day to a month to process.

I was quite nervous about credit-card payments because if payments are late or returned, the interest rate might be drastically increased. My existing rates were between 4 and 5%. If an autopay payment did not go through, the interest rate might immediately increase to between 25% and 30%. Who knows what might happen if mortgage payments did not process.

My purpose in returning to the bank on the following day was to see if the customer service representative could find a way to restore the $10,000 line of credit for overdraft protection. Evidently, the department in charge of this credit would not budge from its offer of a $500 limit. The picture brightened after the representative checked with her superior. He advised her to call the fraud unit. The fraud representative said she could help. After putting us on hold for a long period of time, we did manage to get the credit limit for overdraft protection increased back to $10,000.

There was only one catch. If the reserve line were increased, I had to close the old checking account immediately. Evidently, the bank was worried that I would have too much credit in relation to my income. I had to make a quick decision about closing the account. I had intended to cover payments expected in the next several days from the old account. Now several of these payments would bounce. My only recourse was to call as many of them as I could to try to make alternative payment arrangements or else beg forgiveness for my failure to perform.

It was late Friday afternoon. Many of these companies did business on Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. I knew that a payment was due on the following day, Saturday, for a particular credit card. My only hope was to negotiate for alternative arrangements on the telephone. For forty minutes I was put on hold, listening to a recording about how important my call was to the company. Finally, a female customer-service representative answered. She told me that I could switch to a new checking account for autopay by visiting the company’s website.

While I was on hold, I had been trying to navigate the company’s website. Evidently, I had used it years before to set up the autopay feature. When I first opened the site, I learned that the credit-card company was in bankruptcy. Perhaps that explained the limited budget that it had for customer service at this hour.

I tried to enter the section of the web site pertaining to my account. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the password. I was given instructions for resetting the password. Each time I followed the recommended routine, I received the following error message: “error staging email for ChangePassword”. The password had to be between six and twenty characters, with at least one word and one number, etc., etc. I tried various passwords but nothing worked. I kept getting the same error message. Therefore, I could not enter the section where my autopay could be switched to a new checking account.

When the customer representative was finally on the line, I knew enough to reject her advice about making the change through the website. I explained my inability to change my password. The woman kept “sirring” me as she explained that she could not help with the website. I asked what might be done. I could make a telephone payment, however there was a $12 service charge for exercising that option. At this point, $12 looked like a bargain if the telephone payment would help me avoid defaulting on tomorrow’s obligation.

Eventually, however, I would need to change the checking account information for autopay. If the website would not allow this and if the telephone representatives were clueless about computers, how might I accomplish this change? Email messages were not being accepted. The only way, apparently, was to write a letter to the company at its headquarters in New York state. So that I what I did. Hopefully, someone there can give me a new password or even change the checking-account information for me.

Since it is now Saturday, I will need to make additional calls on Monday morning to deal with the closed checking account. At least one other company had planned to charge me on Saturday, but this, fortunately, is not a financial institution. The worst that can happen will be to be charged $20 or so for a failed payment attempt.

In summary, the “convenience” that Sprint and Qwest accords its customers in allowing them freely to access other people’s checking accounts has cost me the better part of three days and expected financial penalties relating to my closed account. Their thieving customers may have privacy rights, but I’m going public. Maybe someone will care.


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