Remember the BillFixers brothers I wrote about last month (and I’ll write about each month in The BillFixers Files). That story got a lot of attention: I did a version for NBCNews.com, the New York Times picked it up, and NBC Nightly News is going to feature the brothers on national television this week. Not all the attention was positive, however. More on that in a moment.
Here is episode 2 of The BillFixers Files, where the boys explain how to make sure you aren’t paying a $1,200 “convenience fee” to your cell phone provider. Then, below, I write about the BillFixers tactic of impersonating consumers, and the recent NY Times story that called them out on it.
But first, the happy ending.
The BillFixers Files: Volume 2
Name: Mike Montgomery
Location: Nashville, TN
Industry: Cell Phone
Nature of Dispute: Plan Change
Resolution: Cut bill from $158.99 to $60 a month!
Time: 1 day
No of contacts: 4 Calls to Sprint, a call and an email with Mike
The story: “Mike had signed up with us with a Sprint bill. He was paying $158.99 a month (plus tax!) for unlimited data with them. His wife had seen some TV ads about cutting their price down, but it turned out they were only for new customers, so they’d given up. We took a look at the bill and realized he was using about a third of a gigabyte. I looked back at his past usage and realized he’d never used more than even half a gigabyte. So, he was paying for a plan that would only have made sense if he was using 20+GB a month, but never was using anywhere near that much. I called up Sprint and got a quote for a plan at $75 a month for 2GB (1GB per line) which would be more than quadruple their max usage, but half the price. I got in touch with Mike, told him about the details of the plan, explained that Sprint could switch him back to an unlimited plan if he really wanted and that with Sprint, they never charge overages, just throttle data speed, and asked if he’d be interested. He took us up on it, we made the switch, I had them drop the plan another $15 because he’d been overpaying for so long, and he was set! So, that worked out to savings of $1,212.88 a year, forever, essentially.”
Lesson learned: “Always look closely at your plan. Just because it might have been the right plan for you when you signed up doesn’t mean it’s the right plan for right now. For Mike, he was paying for way more than he needed for way more data than he ever used. For every year that he kept that outdated plan without calling in, he was paying a $1,200 convenience fee. It never hurts to double check if there might be something smarter out there!”
OK, now onto the explanation. I intially wrote the below as a separate entry, but I feel it’s more appropriate to attach it here.
Great! The New York Times picked up on my new BillFixers Files monthly feature last week.
Not as great: The Times’ headline described the BillFixers as “ethically ambiguous.” That’s a pretty negative phrase which conjures up images of compromised politicians. As in, “Well, what they are doing isn’t illegal, but … ” It’s pretty heavy language, and I’ll let you decide how you feel about the characterization.
I feel a need to explain as I’m continuing my BillFixers Files series.
You might recall the two brothers who started a business negotiating consumers’ bills for them, and keeping half of whatever “winnings” they can obtain. Customers who are beaten down by endless hold times and neglectful customer service agents are happy to split their savings with the Julian (26) and Ben Kurland (23). In fact, the pair have been so successful that they’ve had to hire staff.
Last month, I announced a regular feature where the BillFixers give away their secrets (for free!) through the lens of one consumer’s success story. Happy endings!
Plenty of folks have picked up on their story since then (and others had written their business earlier, too). Ron Lieber of the New York Times was even more industrious: He traveled down to Tennessee to see the BillFixers boys work their magic in person. And he picked up on something the rest of us did not:
The Kurland brothers and their workers impersonate consumers when calling companies on their behalf.
I did not know that. If I did, I would have questioned them on it.
In fact, I did question them: during an initial interview, I asked the brothers if they ever had any trouble working with companies as a third party; they simply said no. I should have expressed more incredulity at that, though I know firms often allow authorized parties to do this kind of “acting on behalf of” account interaction. I was more interested in getting to the nitty-gritty of how they do what they do so you, my readers, could learn from it.
This is a reporting error on my part and I feel badly about it. More substantively, how should you feel about it? And what does the law saw?
Lieber makes his feelings clear.
“Is this legal? Even if it is, are the ethics even remotely defensible?” he says early in the piece. And later, “I do not endorse the way the company conducts itself when initiating calls.”
I called the brothers after the piece was published to express my disappointment that they didn’t give me a real answer when I asked about calling as a third party; and I asked them for a reaction to the Times story. Here’s what they said:
“It was not our intention to hide it. We do it every day and don’t even think about it. Like using software,” Ben said.
When BillFixers first began, they did indeed find that companies would insist on speaking directly to account holders. Sometimes, they’d go to the trouble of conducting conference calls with consumers, or getting added as authorized users. But that slowed them down; firms often “lost’ authorization forms, and so on. So they slid into the next step and just started pretending to be the consumers who were their customers.
The technique had its origins much earlier, when one of the brothers negotiated with a Comcast on behalf of his girlfriend and pretended to be her father. Pretending to be another family member is a fairly time-tested technique for dealing with phone call hassles; the BillFixers have taken this to a new level, however.
They do disclose this impersonation on a (new) frequently asked questions page: “To save you hassle, we’ll just call using your name, but if you prefer a little hassle, you can call your provider and add us as official authorized users.”
They admit some consumers may not realize the BillFixers are impersonating them. But when they find out, “almost nobody has a problem with it,” Ben said. They always offer to go the authorized user route, but hardly any consumer takes them up on it.
“(The Times) has raised it as a serious ethical issue. But the only people we are lying to are these big corporations,” Julian says. “I’m not going to come out and apologize to Comcast for this. But I do feel bad about anybody who didn’t realize we were doing it this way.” And they vowed to be more transparent about the technique.
Now: Is this deception illegal?
Long-time readers might recall that I spilled a lot of digital ink writing about “pretexting” about a decade ago: the once-thriving and legally murky business of private investigators lying to phone companies to steal consumers’ phone records and sell them. After a scandal involving Hewlett Packard’s use of such techniques, a federal law was passed making the practice a violation of federal law. My opinion is that the brothers are not obtaining personal records without consumer permission for sale, so they are not operating in violation of that law. I’m not sure I’d want to do what they are doing and find out, however.
What about the corporations? Are they breaking some law by misleading companies they deal with? If they are, none of them could tell Lieber what law they’d broken. And no federal agency had a comment.
Julian is a lawyer, and that means he has professional conduct rules to follow. Can lawyers ethically pretend they are someone else to obtain information? That’s a pretty grey area; but it happens often. On the one hand, evidence obtained that way would never withstand scrutiny in court. But does “secret shopper’ calling a firm to see if it is behaving in a way that is harmful to a client cause for censure? That would be a complex determination.
Have I ever pretended to be someone I’m not to get information as a journalist? Of course I have. There are rules governing when that’s done, and what to do with the information obtained. But where would we be without hidden camera investigations?
Is what the BillFixers are doing “ethically ambiguous?” By the definition of that phrase, yes. But it’s such a loaded phrase I think it’s a bit overdone. Getting a big political donation to help grease the skids for an affordable housing project is “ethically ambiguous.” Taking a shortcut to help consumers save money when dealing with a company that makes billions specifically by erecting as many obstacles to consumers as it can? Some could argue that’s just re-balancing the scales a bit.
I don’t like the shortcut the BillFixers are taking; to grow from a tiny operation into a real company, the brothers will have to change their business model and do things the more annoying way. (Ben, by the way, disagrees. “Our goal continues to be to save people as much money as possible with as little hassle as possible, and it’s our belief that we can grow doing that.”)
I really don’t like that I feel I may have misled you, my readers, and I apologize.
But I also think BillFixers techniques are great and incredibly useful for you, so I’m going to continue with my monthly series.
What do you think?
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