Skip to content

Instantly share code, notes, and snippets.

What would you like to do?

February 6, 2010 at 2:02:28 AM PST

Taking the Dumb Pipe to China

Note: This story finally ended


So, yesterday I tweeted:

Dialed an 866 WebEx number on my iPhone, getting charged by AT&T for calling China. idontevenknowwhotoblamefail

Here's the story so far:

The company I work for uses WebEx. In late December, we had a big WebEx conference that was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. I didn't want to be trapped in front of the computer for that long, so I took advantage of the WebEx iPhone app to dial in.

The WebEx app is pretty slick: You open a link to a WebEx conference in the iPhone, the app opens up, connects you to the (toll free, it's an 866 number) dial-in number, then you can watch the presentation slides in the app. When other people on the call speak, there's a little indicator at the bottom of the screen that tells you who's talking. You can flip back and forth between the slides and the call roster. They included a mute button, too. If more people knew about the mute button, there'd be less suffering in the world because we'd all spend less time wondering who the aggressive nose breather on the call is.

I was new to the app so I dialed in a little early to make sure everything was working. It took me a few tries to figure out how the app worked, but on the third dial-in, I stayed on the call. Everything went fine, then 90 minutes later the call ended.

An Unpleasant Surprise

Fast forward to yesterday.

I sat down at the computer to go through and pay my online bills, including my AT&T bill. I've never set up automatic payments because I'm paranoid about telling a company to just dip in and take what it thinks it needs each month. That was probably proven to be a good policy this month, because my bill was a WTF!?-inducing $557.43. It's usually much, much less. Usually way over $300 less.

For a few seconds I had that sort of swimmy feeling you get when you've made a terrible mistake. I sat staring at the screen, wondering if I'd somehow changed our plan, or if Alison, who'd been out of town twice in the past month, had wandered into some bizarre Super Charge zone in Baltimore or Long Beach. Then I had a few paranoid thoughts about Invisible Phonejacker Sky Pirates. I've never heard of Invisible Phonejacker Sky Pirates, but they struck me as a reasonable explanation for a few seconds before I regained the analytical faculties that separate us from the common beast in the field.

I pulled up the full view of my bill and began to go over it line by line. I eventually got to an entry on 12/30/09. It was a call to an 866 number listed as "China" for 1 minute, costing $3.49. Then I looked at the next entry. Another call, a minute later, to an 866 number listed as "China" for 96 minutes, costing $335.04.

I looked up and down the bill in the immediate vicinity of those calls and noticed that just before the first call to "China," I'd placed another call to the exact same 866 number as the other two, only it was listed as "toll free" and incurred no charge.

I didn't remember the conference I'd sat in on over a month prior, so the only thing I really knew was that I hadn't called China, and that even if Ben had managed to call China, he's never had my phone out of my sight for 96 minutes. So I called AT&T. As near as I can recall, this is a verbal snapshot of my mindset:

"I didn't call China. I've never called China. What's more, 866 numbers are not China numbers. And even more to the point, one of the calls to the exact same number is properly listed as 'toll free.' The AT&T rep will courteously listen to my story, I'll hear some keys clacking in the background, she'll say something like 'Oh ... oh no.' I'll stiffen a little at that, but she'll realize she's made me nervous and she'll quickly put my fears at ease. 'This is all a terrible mistake. We'll get this taken care of. May I put you on hold?' I'll say 'sure,' and then I'll sit for a few minutes until she comes back and tells me it's all taken care of. She'll ask if there's anything else she can do for me today and I'll laugh and say 'if you've gotten that $300 off my account I think we're all set.' She'll laugh pleasantly, I'll hang up, and I'll be on my way."

An Even More Unpleasant Customer Service Representative

I called AT&T, and the point at which the agent picked up the phone and confirmed my account information is pretty much where the little narrative I imagined completely derailed.

I explained my story. Her initial response was "I don't know what to tell you."

I restated my thesis, which was that being charged for a 96 minute call to China when I'd called an allegedly toll free number seemed inappropriate.

She allowed as how she had a "theory" as to why that might be, but didn't care to elaborate.

I reiterated my thesis once more, reminding her of the bit in my story where I called the same number a minute earlier and was charged nothing at all.

"Maybe you disconnected before you could be charged," she suggested.

If that was the case, why did my bill say the call lasted four minutes and was "toll free," when the next call to the exact same number was only one minute long and cost $3.49?

She retreated to her original position, which was that she had a "theory."

"Aren't 866 numbers toll free?" I asked.

They were, she said, unless I'd allowed my line to accept some charges once I connected because I'd been calling a party line.

"I didn't call a 'party line,'" I said. "I don't call party lines. Ever."

"I wouldn't know anything about that," she replied.

At that point, she decided to actually consult my bill. Since I had my bill on the screen in front of me, I told her where to look using the line numbers that are printed in front of each entry on the bill.

"Items 55, 56 and 57" I said.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said.

I explained that my copy of the bill numbered each entry.

Her copy did not. Fine, I said, they're three calls to the same 866 number, and they're all within a minute of each other on 12/30/09.

"Look," she said, "I'm going to step you through where we need to be in the bill."

She then embarked on a painful, three-minute-long process that involved translating the version of the bill she had on her screen to the version I might be seeing on my screen. In the end we arrived at the portion of the bill that covered calls made on 12/30/09. Once we got there she said "I guess you could have opened the PDF version."


At that point, she looked at the three calls to the same number, reminded me that she had a "theory" she didn't care to share, and said she could do nothing for me.


"No. I have a theory, but I don't have any way of knowing."

"Can you imagine someone at your company who might?"

"I can transfer you to someone who might, but I can't promise anything. And if you don't pay you risk suspension of your service, so keep that in mind when you talk to them."

"Well, may I please be transferred?"

"Yes. I'll transfer you. Like I said, I have a theory but I can't do anything about it."

"O.k. Thank you."

"You're welcome. We'll see what they say."

"Yes. Thanks!"


I was put on hold.

Spotlight Proves Useful

While I sat on hold, it occurred to me that I'd called the 866 number for a reason, and that maybe, somewhere on my computer, I could find that reason. So I started searching for the number using Spotlight.

When I typed the first three numbers—866—a few thousand hits appeared.

When I typed the next three numbers, it quickly pared down to under 100.

By the time I had the whole number in, the only messages showing were from people in my company, including one announcing the conference call on 12/30.


The next agent was, well, less of an asshole.

I stepped her through my reasoning, and she agreed that my circumstances made no sense. I repeated a few key points and noted that I had a number of e-mails sent on behalf of my company from WebEx identifying the number as toll-free. Things went from "not making a lot of sense" to "really weird," which I took as a hopeful sign.

Unfortunately, because we were talking about over $300 in charges, she was powerless. I had to be referred to a special team that would contact me at some point in the next 7 days.

I pointed out that I'd been threatened with suspension of service if I didn't pay. She offered to create a payment arrangement to tide me over until the charge was off my bill.

The Special Team Calls

So this afternoon, I got a call from someone on that special team.

I was a lot more settled, so I related the story as directly as I could with very little backtracking.

She told me she was happy to remove the charges from my bill, however ...

I sat upright at "however," because to my way of thinking there should be no "howevers" in this situation.

However, there was a call on my account to the same number for 30 minutes just two days ago (yep -- another WebEx call). Those charges could not be forgiven, but they could be reduced if I agreed to sign up for AT&T's special long distance plan and paid $0.15 per minute for that call and any others I decided to make to China in the future (even though I have never consciously decided to call China ever).

I said that was ridiculous when nobody could even explain to me how it was that calling an 866 number to the exact same people could result in either charges for calling to China or no charge at all.

As pleasant as this representative was, I have the impression that she was genuinely puzzled that I wouldn't agree to a recurring $3.99/month charge and an unmerited $4.50 charge. But she agreed to contact technical support and report the matter. I explained that, as much as I love my iPhone, I would not be able to tolerate AT&T as my carrier if they thought imposing a $3.99 Invisible Phonejacker Sky Pirates prevention surcharge plus $.15 per minute was a reasonable solution.

Twitter Becomes the Best Thing Ever (Maybe)

Not long after that call was over, I got a tweet from "Cisco WebEx" asking me to e-mail an address with my story.

A few hours later I got a very sympathetic e-mail from someone I could look up on LinkedIn who is not a "Cisco WebEx" person, but who is a "marketing consultant."

She promised to ring someone at WebEx proper and see if they could help.

Someone having something to do with WebEx was my next stop in the process, so it was good that I was spared having to dig around through the corporate Web site to figure out where to begin.

And that's where things are for now.

If this is halftime, I'd score the game in favor of WebEx if only because AT&T's team had two perfectly pleasant reps whose relatively sympathetic responses were drowned out by the horrible woman I dealt with first.

More when something happens.

#at&t #iphone #webex

Sign up for free to join this conversation on GitHub. Already have an account? Sign in to comment