Help, AT&T is harassing me – what should I do?

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By | November 20th, 2014

After Lori Collins cancels her AT&T account, she expects the bills to stop. They don’t, and now the company is sending her account to collections. What can she do?

Question: I canceled my service with AT&T over two years ago. I switched service to Verizon because I was extremely unhappy with the service AT&T provided and had multiple errors on bills.

I paid the last bill they sent me in full. A few months later I started getting more bills. Then collections agencies started calling me at home and at work and were threatening me.

I sent an email to the CEO of AT&T and received multiple responses back from the director of the office of the president for AT&T. Her email stated, “If you provide me with the account number in question, I’ll make certain all of this contact is stopped as quickly as possible and that there is no impact whatsoever to your credit report.”

I continue to be hounded by different collections agencies over this disputed debt. And guess what appears on my credit report, despite their promise that this would stop and not impact my credit?

I have sent letters to my congressman and the attorney general’s office. No one is helping me.

I would like to know what I can do and what rights I have. I have requested in writing that AT&T stop contacting me. However, the harassment continues.

I refuse to take phone calls from them, since that leaves no paper trail as to what was said. I want them to stop contacting and harassing me and I want them to own up to their promise that this would not impact my credit report. Can anything be done to make them stop harassing me and fix the impact on my credit they said would not happen?

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Lori Collins, Charlottesville, Va.

Answer: AT&T should have given you the service it promised. But when it didn’t, it should have canceled your account and sent you a final bill.


I’ve been back and forth with AT&T many times since you brought this to my attention. I’ve also reviewed the emails between you and the company.

It appears that you canceled your account and paid your final bill, according to your records. AT&T’s records show you owe it $232.

Now, this kind of misunderstanding can easily be reconciled in writing. That appeared to happen when AT&T sent you an email, acknowledging that the efforts to collect $232 were a mistake.

Can a debt collector call you for two years, the way AT&T’s collection agency did? Well, yes, with some restrictions. For example, they’re not allowed to contact you at inconvenient times or places, unless you agree to it. But by all outward appearances, AT&T handled your collection effort by the book. The Federal Trade Commission offers a helpful rundown of your rights during a collection effort on its website.

One thing about your banter with AT&T troubled me: You stopped talking to the company at some point, insisting that it write to you. I’m not sure that was the best move. A representative might have been able to offer you information that would have led to a speedier resolution.

Indeed, when a company makes a promise like “We’ll drop this claim” — that’s when you need to get it in writing. But there’s no harm in talking.

I followed your case for more than a year, continuing a dialog with you and AT&T. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the company wouldn’t drop its claim, even after I asked on your behalf and showed it all the relevant emails.

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Finally, I heard from my AT&T contact. “Good news on this,” he said. “As a courtesy, we are going to waive the disputed charge and will contact the appropriate bureaus to request that the charge not damage Ms. Collins’ credit.”

That is good news. A little late, but as they say, better late than never.

Was AT&T wrong to pursue Lori Collins for her bill?

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  • PsyGuy

    A whole year!!! I would have headed to Tokyo summary court or small claims court WAY before that. In the US I believe the statutory penalty for violation of the Fair Credit Collections and reporting Acts are $500 per instance.

  • LFH0

    The response, “As a courtesy, we are going to waive the disputed charge,” is not very satisfactory. The reason for not pursuing the charge is that the amount is not owed. There is no “courtesy” in doing what is required. There is no “waiving” of charges not owed. This looks like AT&T trying to exculpate itself, that is, a “we didn’t do anything wrong” attitude.

  • Jim

    Court may not be the best option to file a claim.

    “A debt collector is not liable for a violation if a preponderance of the evidence shows that the violation was not intentional and was the result of a bona fide error that arose despite procedures reasonably designed to avoid any such error. ” from the FTC website.

    And it goes on to state that the court can award attorney fees to the plaintiff.

    You might be better off seeking administrative relief by filing the claim with the FTC itself.

  • FQTVLR

    AT&T’s customer service is lousy and getting worse. Once someone said the disputed charge would be dealt with then that should have been the end of it. This problem should not have dragged on for a year. I am a bit curious as to what AT&T said the disputed charge was for and why it took several months to decide the LW owed more money. Just poor handling of this by AT&T from the start.

  • PsyGuy

    The provision you sited in the first paragraph of your quote addresses the scenario where a debt collector contacts the wrong person, such as when they contact Shirley Smith when the debtor is Charily Smith.

    In this case the plaintiff would be the debtor, they would file the suite for statutory damages under the FDCA.

    If the state AG’s office can’t stop the harassment the FTC isn’t either.

    In Tokyo a collections manager simply would not harass a client that was in arrears, and foreign companies that have harassed their debtors face very still penalties in Japanese courts.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    I agree that after a certain line is crossed, you shouldn’t to talk to anyone going forward, and insist that all communications be in writing.

    Having said that, this kind of a story keeps coming up regularly, and each time I say that I still don’t understand why people have all these problems dealing with bogus debts.

    My one and only time dealing with a bogus debt collector was quite similar. I cancelled cell service (with AT&T!), but they piled on a few extra charges.

    I didn’t want to waste any more time on them, so I ignored them. When the initial demand letter from some collection agency showed up, I promptly mailed them back a reply, disputing the validity of the debt, certified mail, return receipt attached.

    Six months later, they apparently sold the bogus debt to some other collection agency. Another letter from another collection agency arrived. These guys were a bit more shadier, and their letter was slightly less kosher, from a legal standpoint. So I did exactly the same thing, and ramped up my reply accordingly, mentioning that I disputed this debt, and I still have the records proving that I disputed it, and that what you clowns are doing is not quite legal. Until the validity of the debt is proven, everyone is legally barred from contacting me, so go away before I write another letter to the state AG. And that was the end of it.

    In this story, the mistake was continuing to deal with AT&T. If you have what you believe is any documentation proving that you paid off your account, and a collection letter arrives like that, don’t waste your time dealing with the original debtor. Reply to the collection agency, formally disputing the debt. You do not need to attach a copy of your documentation, save it; but mention, briefly what documentation you have proving that you don’t owe it, in your response to the collection agency, that formally disputes the debt. That should’ve been the end of it. This should not’ve taken a year.

  • Retired

    My experience with a collection agency had a happy ending (in Canada).
    Received a call at the office that several hundred dollars was owed to a cell phone company. At the time, I didn’t even own a cell phone, and had no account with that company. When I contacted the company itself, they would not provide me with any information, insisted that it would be a breach of privacy. On contacting the person at the debt collection agency, she suggested that I make a police report and place a flag on my file with the credit agency. Turns out it was identity fraud (with the police having a record of my name and other attempts by the individual at getting money!). Once the debt collection agency had the police report, they closed the file.

  • FQTVLR

    I had the same problem when I cancelled AOL in 1998 when it was still a fully paid service. Two years later I was contacted by a collection agency regarding unpaid fees for the two months after I had finally cancelled my service. I had the original letter from them showing account closed and paid in full. I had a notarized copy made and sent it, as you did, registered mail with return receipt, to both the collection agency and the CEO of Time Warner who had just purchased AOL. I had a prompt call from Time Warner, advising me this was all an error. I requested a written confirmation and received it promptly. The collection agency continued to contact me. A legal friend sent them a copy of the Time Warner letter as well as well as copies of what they received originally. I never heard from them again.

  • Bubbles

    Neither of the poll questions make sense to me. If the OP owe’s money, then she should pay the money. If she doesn’t, then she shouldn’t.

    Wouldn’t it be easy for AT&T and/or the OP to produce the final bills, the receipt of the payment – check stub, scan (banks post the scans on the user’s account), balance sheets? If the bill reflects a final balance of $232 and there is a deduction of $232 on X day following the final bill, it should be straightforward and concise. Am I missing something?

  • Bubbles

    But it doesn’t appear any proof – by either party – was provided past words. Unless I’m missing something, it seems a final bill and proof of a deduction, a check stub, something should prove it was paid or it wasn’t.

    AT&T seems to think it was a valid charge they’re waving, the OP seems to think there was in fact a final charge, and it was paid. That SHOULD be relatively easy to prove – even two years back.

    Seems like there isn’t enough information for us, as readers, to make any sort of an informed conclusion.

  • Blamona

    Although I think AT&T customer service can be lacking, what’s not clear is did she cancel the contract before it expired? (ex 2 year contract before 2 years up?). Most companies have penalties for that (to “pay” for the phone you got during the contract). If she was told on the phone with no penalties, then there’s no recourse. So can you tell us was it before contract expired?

  • Bill___A

    Maybe I am missing something, but why did AT&T feel they were owed $232? Was there a contract?
    Not enough information…..

  • mythsayer

    $1,000 per violation of the fair debt collection practices act, but…..we don’t know if a collection agency was really involved. She says so but most lay people don’t care whether it’s abc collections or AT&T collections. Most companies try to collect by themselves first, then give it to a collection agency. If AT&T never turned it over and the calls were internal calls, the fdcpa doesn’t apply (not to the creditor itself collecting). So then there’d be no $$ for violations available.

  • mythsayer

    If AT&T was handling it in in house collections, they wouldn’t be subject to ANY of the things you did. Fdcpa only applies to outside collection agencies. If that’s who she was dealing with then yes, multiple violations I can see immediately. You did everything textbook perfect though :) I used to be a collections attorney. Still attorney…no collections thank god.

  • Spysea

    Answer the phone when the collection agency calls , why or what is she hiding by not answering their calls?

  • emanon256

    Oh wow, AT&T sure screwed up on this one. Not sure what else to say, but glad you were able to help her. These are the types of cases that need a consumer advocate, and I am grateful for CE’s work!

  • emanon256

    I was thinking the exact same thing.

  • Chris Johnson

    I can’t vote on this one. Did she really owe the money or not? Maybe she thought she paid in full but she could have been mistaken on this, and of course, maybe AT&T was mistaken instead.

  • nyctraveler

    I’m still not clear on what the $232 AT&T thinks she owed them was for. Was that the prorated amount due for early termination? If she didn’t terminate the contract early, them why not just send back a copy of the final bill with proof of payment? There’s information missing here for readers to make an informed opinion on who was at fault for this situation.

  • Jim

    Your right I meant to say defendant.

    But the FTC can assess the penalty against the debt collector.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree…I don’t think that we are getting the whole picture.

    Every company including AT&T has incompetent, bad, poor, etc. customer service reps; therefore, an erroneous charge of $ 232 could have been entered. Software programs can have bugs so an erroneous charge of $ 232 could have been applied to the OP account. Usually a phone call to the company and asking for a supervisor can get an erroneous charge, an error, etc. corrected immediately.

    We have AT&T. When a new iPhone is available, we will contact AT&T to see where are we in our contract. If we are still have months left on our contract, they will tell us the penalty to break it and to purchase a new phone.

    Unless there was a customer service error or a programming error, the $ 232 was automatically generated by the AT&T billing program to cover a phone and/or months remaining on the contract.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree…there isn’t enough information for us to make a judgement in this situation.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “I paid the last bill they sent me in full. A few months later I started getting more bills.”

    This COULD have been the problem. For certain services (i.e. cell, land line, cable TV, etc) you are billed in arrears (i.e. paying for the last month of service) or in advance (paying for the next month of service); therefore, it is possible that the OP that that the final bill that she paid was not actually the final bill. I have encountered this problem with Cox Cable when adding and dropping servicesfeatures to our account.

  • MarkKelling

    AT&T bills you in advance. Any overages (could be data, text messages, or minutes depending on your plan) are billed the next month.

    Unless the LW went way over on everything, I would think that the final bill received “a few months later” was an early termination charge plus any overages for the final month minus the final advance bill she paid.

  • sunshipballoons

    If I had to guess, I’d say she probably DID owe the $232. But once AT&T said it was a mistake, it had to let it go.

  • judyserienagy

    What were they billing her for? This is a weird case that doesn’t make much sense. I’d like to know the reason she was being billed … it’s interesting to ponder who is in charge of ATT when the company behaves this way. I dropped ATT at the office when they hired aggressive marketing companies to sell UVerse. We would get 4 or 5 calls a day for months. So maybe ATT hired equally-aggressive collection agencies? Strange story, I think there’s more to it … but Chris worked on it for a YEAR?

  • DavidYoung2

    You can always PAY it first, then sue for a refund. Getting served always seems to grab the attention of somebody who can actually fix the problem.

  • sirwired

    Once you tell them not to contact you, they are supposed to stop. Maybe they were calling too often, maybe they wouldn’t listen to her when she talked, maybe she just didn’t want to talk to them on the phone. Ordering them to stop calling is her legal right.

  • Annie M

    Chris, please enlighten us as many of us are totally confused as to what the $232 was for. Did she pay that as her last payment and A T & T not acknowledge it? Or was the $232 for something else – such as a broken contract? What was the owed amount for?

  • Bernard Rappoport

    Trying to get $232 has cost them several times that to try to collect. There becomes a point. no matter what, that it makes no sense to pursue. AT&T itself is a notorious slowpaying client of our company, so the hypocrisy is clear

  • John Keahey

    I agree. Often there is “not enough information” in Chris’s posts. He should either ask the company why and then report it or, if the company refuses to say why, report that. A simple sentence or two in the story.

  • PsyGuy

    Very true, my assumption was that this was a third party collection agency.

  • PsyGuy

    Why pay first, just sue to begin with.

  • PsyGuy

    Wow you had AOL, that was a long time ago.

  • AH

    calling someone at work, threatening and harassing are definitely outside of the FTC rules!
    i cancelled my discover card back in 1999, paid in full. and starting in 2009, i started receiving letters and harassing phone calls from a collection agency about “my” discover card bill. one phone collector even told me that no matter what i said, they would continue to call me and deliberately harass me!! (like they really got their kicks out of doing that.)
    i finally got someone semi-pleasant, and asked them to mail me a copy of the bill they claimed i owed. it was so totally bogus! they’d obviously cut and pasted together every piece of information they’d been able to find about me onto one “bill”. when i informed them of that, they finally quit harassing me.

    some companies dig up old records and try to collect old debts these days. i went round in circles with my local gas company who wanted me to pay my father’s bills from 1995 (for which they hadn’t billed him when he’d moved to a different address.) after he died in 2001, i’d moved into his house, and they wanted me to pay bills from 1995?!?! not hardly! i’d thought that was all straightened out in 2003, then in 2010, i started getting notices again about that “past due” bill. thank heaven’s i’m a packrat and still had all the old documentation handy to prove that it wasn’t my bill.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Three reasons.

    1. If you lose your credit isn’t damaged.
    2. Even if you win, repairing your credit can be a beast.
    3. The small claims courts may not have the ability to adjudicate a preemptive (declaratory relief) claim.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    As mythsayer and others mentioned, that’s only for 3rd party credit agencies, not the original creditor.

  • pkabatek

    This is horrific and borders on the criminal. I would have them to court. How does AT&T justify staying in business? It robs people. Period. This is not an isolated incident and is more the rule than the exception. I agree Congress should look into AT&T and the other telecoms’ practices and set them straight.

  • Asiansm Dan

    In the USA, it seems the Corporates and the Credit Bureau are the Intouchable Gangs and they lobby and they paid the Govt and the Law to be on their side. In Canada, the Consumer laws (specially in Quebec) and the consumer protection/ombudsman are more on the Consumers side to keep the Corporate Gangs in line. So the Corporate are softer on the customer in the dispute. Collection Agency and Banks function more within the rules of the law, they don’t want the legislators add more restrictions and regulations.

  • The Original Joe S

    You capture the thought nicely.

  • The Original Joe S

    “A legal friend sent them a copy of the Time Warner letter” Could you have asked one of your illegal friends to do it for you? :-)

  • The Original Joe S

    Sam, I totally agree with you. If it ain’t in writing, it don’t exist! Phonecalls mean NOTHING unless you use Free Sound Recorder or other such to make a record of the conversation. Do so w/o notifying them in a one-party state, or tell them in a state which requires you to notify them that you are recording the conversation. However, letters are better, in my opinion.

    Chris, how many times have you told us that a phonecall is no good because there’s no record of it?

  • The Original Joe S

    Mr Smith, telling you any information about Mr Smith would be a breach of Mr Smith’s privacy, so you’ll simply have to guess at it. Is this lame?

  • The Original Joe S

    Talk on the phone? Sure:
    I had some land which required payment of water fees and such. Sold it.
    Got a certified lawyer letter. Didn’t sign for it; it went back.

    On phone with smarty-lady lawyer.

    Me: what’s this about?
    Lawyer: If you’d signed for the letter, you’d know.

    M: I NEVER sign for letters from some shyster who sends me a blind letter. If you had had the common courtesy to call me and discuss it, we could have straightened it out. Now, what do you want?
    L: You owe for the water on the land.
    M: I sold it last year.
    L: You have to go to the country courthouse and get a copy of the document which proves that you sold it.
    M: I do NOT work for YOU! Get off your lazy anterior and go down there YOUR STUPID SELF and find out who owns it now, and go bother THEM. DO NOT call me or contact me again, or I’ll sic MY lawyer on YOU!
    Never heard from that bumditch again.

  • Mark Carrara

    it might not be the collection agency’s fault. ATT sent them a bill they have to assume it is correct. It is not the collection agency’s job to fix the mess, that’s on ATT. Of course they may still be slime, but they would be legal slime.

  • Nevsky2

    That is one of the many reasons not to do business with AT&T. T-Mobile has better prices and service.

  • John Baker

    Ha ha … T-Mobile offered multiple discounts in writing and then decided they didn’t have to follow through but wanted to force me to honor the contract.

    They’re all bad!

  • jet2x2

    I am going to go out on a limb here. I think there is a good chance this was a valid debt. Also, if it was she might have a hard time getting this off her credit report.

    She says she was contacted by a collection agency. She also claims her congressional rep and the AG did not help her. If this was a state AG, my experience with debt collection (from the business side) is that they usually insist on evidence from the business and push for a resolution if the consumer has a valid complaint. Assuming that to be the case here, if the collection agency presented evidence to support the debt the AG would not have acted on behalf of the consumer. My experience with congressional complaints is that the staffers do get involved by writing to the business. If the business provides proof that their actions were consistent with applicable laws and regulations, that’s usually the end of the correspondence.

    The other reason I think there could have been a valid debt is the statement that she paid the last bill they sent and then got more bills. I dealt with many customers who thought when they paid the last bill after cancellation of an account, they were finished. As someone else noted, there are often further charges in these types of situations, or you are pre-paying and still owe up to a month after you cancel. If I was mediating this I would examine all of the post-payment bills and the contract to determine if the further charges were valid.

    If she was dealing with a collection agency, talking to or writing to AT&T was legally irrelevant. While AT&T is ultimately responsible for providing accurate debt information to a collector working on their behalf, once the debt goes into collection the consumer’s legal rights (in the U.S.) are in relation to the collector. If you believe a collection agency is trying to collect on an invalid debt you have the right to challenge it with the collector. At that point the collector must go to the original debt holder (in this case AT&T) and confirm the debt. If the debt is confirmed, the collector can proceed.

    You do have the right to demand that a collector only contact you in writing. As also noted by someone else, that right doesn’t apply to a business collecting on its own behalf.

    While AT&T says they waived the debt “as a courtesy,” that may not translate to “paid in full” on the credit reports. That’s a technical credit reporting issue. The consumer can require the bureaus to post their side of the story. However, when a debt is waived or compromised, it could still be reported as valid depending on what AT&T and/or the agency reported to the bureaus.

    I realize I have made several assumptions here. For all we know this was an invalid debt and AT&T should not have sent it for collection in the first place.

    My point is not to defend either side here – just to point out that debt collection complaints are complicated and not always easy to judge one way or the other.

  • Mary Gallagher

    I have a similar problem with Verizon for perhaps 4 or 5 years now. They re-file the bad mark against my credit report every year. I’ve just given up and live with it. But it’s not as sad as the situation for the guys living in a homeless shelter I had help me move…all three of them owe on college school loans that have multiplied into the $20,000 range and they are working at day labor when they can get it?

  • Annie M

    This is exactly why we’d like Chris to clarify – what was that $232 done.

  • Allan Jayne

    You can dispute the bill with the collection agency too. It will have to send you the same information to support its side of the story as the original creditor would have had to send you.

    In an earlier lifetime a collection agency for the electric company sent me a demand for payment after I had moved to another address and finished making all the payments I claim that I owed. I answered by asking them for a kilowatt hour record of the usage that was not paid for. I did not hear from them again.

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