03/01/2012 05:28 am ET

Sprint Cell Phone Customer Gets Trapped In Auto Bill-Pay Nightmare

Alina Simone, 37, is so traumatized by her fights with Sprint, her cell phone carrier, that she sometimes ignores mail from the company.

"I am afraid to open my phone bills," said the Brooklyn-based author and musician. "I literally have a physical reaction. My heart starts racing. I get upset. In fact, I regularly incur late fees because I am so afraid of opening them."

The drama began nearly a year-and-a-half ago when Simone, a longtime fan of automatic bill-pay, decided she should suck it up and check her statements instead of relying on the sweet ignorance of auto bill-pay. That's when she discovered the company was charging her per text message, even though her plan included 1,000 free texts per month.

"Literally the bill would say I had 1,000 free texts included and then, right below that, it would say I had used 300 texts and was being charged for each one. Right there, on the same piece of paper."

While Simone's experience is unusual, it's a good reminder that auto bill-pay shouldn't be too automatic: Because companies make mistakes, because computers make mistakes, because company computers make mistakes, it's important to review your monthly statements. When Simone began sifting through her old bills, she realized she'd been charged on a per-text basis for the past seven months, racking up more than $700 in erroneous fees.

She'd also been charged another $100 for a data service she never added to her plan. She called the company to complain and though the Sprint agent agreed that there'd been a mistake, the customer service representative explained that company policy only allowed a refund for the previous three months' charges.

"I exploded," said Simone, who asked to speak to the agent's manager. When the manager quoted the same three-month policy, she asked to speak to the manager's manager -- and up the staff ladder she went from there,.

She was transferred between departments, languished on hold, then sometimes found herself kicked back to the main customer service menu while she was waiting to speak with a senior employee.

"Under our Terms and Conditions, any dispute to a charge on a bill must be made within 60 days of the date of the bill that initially contained the charge," explained Sprint spokeswoman Melinda Tiemeyer in an email to The Huffington Post. "There are some exceptions to this rule—all disputes are handled on a case by case basis. The timeframe is put in place so that Sprint and our customers have guidelines in place for handling disputes ... The customer accepts all charges not properly disputed within the above time period—undisputed charges must still be paid as stated on their bill."

Tiemeyer declined to comment on Simone's specific case, citing confidentiality rules.

"They made it as unpleasant as possible with mistaken transfers and disconnected calls," said Simone, who estimates she spent more than six hours on the phone, with at least half a dozen different company representatives, sorting out her bills. "I had to fight so hard and go to ever higher and higher people. I even threatened to call a lawyer. You can't just make a mistake and then say that you have some very short statute of limitations on people correcting that mistake, especially when you're using their autopay system."

Eventually, Simone get the full $800 refunded, and for the next year things were quiet.

When her contract came up for renewal she chose to switch to a month-to-month plan instead of locking into a longer term contract, but she felt good about the decision. Sprint never dropped her calls, a rarity for cell phone providers in New York City where service is infamously spotty. She was able to customize her plan and her bills were correct. The company had listened, and the problem appeared to be fixed -- until last month when she noticed that once again she was racking up per-text charges despite the fact that her plan includes prepaid text messages.

Simone, who was born in the Ukraine, said experiences like this make her miss Russia, where people pay for cell phone service with refillable debit-type cards. "Let's be honest. Russia is not really thought of as being great for customer service or convenience," she acknowledged. "But even in a country like that, you can go to the ATM and fill your phone card and the money that you put on your card is the money you spend on your phone. There's no weird charges, no secret fees. I miss that. In comparison, this is draconian."

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