Bamboozled: Sleuth unravels mystery phone charges

Sherri Neuwirth opened her Verizon telephone bill and saw something every parent dreads: 900-number charges from a companyBB branding called Dateline.

Knowing she didn’t make the calls, the Montclair mom of two teens, 15 and 13, asked her children and their friends.

“Ah, the teenagers,” Neuwirth said. “Complete denial. No knowledge of what a 900 number is. Claims that they don’t need to call a phone number for dates.”

Neuwirth embarked on a series of phone calls to Verizon customer service to have the charges removed. After five months, new charges, no credits and a call-blocking service that didn’t seem to work, Neuwirth contacted Bamboozled.

Trying customer (dis)service

The first charge, for $8.55, appeared on Neuwirth’s November 2008 bill.
“Not knowing what this was — after probing my teenage children and their friends — I called Verizon,” she said.

Neuwirth never claimed the calls were not hers, only that they were unauthorized, and she admits her teens or their friends could have been responsible. The calls were made when school was out, and her house is a popular retreat for kids.

Verizon told Neuwirth the charge would be deducted and a block of 900- and 700-numbers would be added to her line. So far, so good.

The December bill arrived without the credit and with three new charges totaling $25.65.

Customer service told her the call block request was on record but not implemented and that Verizon would put the block in place and she’d be credited for all the charges.

Then came January. There were two new charges totaling $17.10 and no credits. (If you’re keeping count, we’re up to $51.30.) During this call, Neuwirth said she was told no credits would be given because these were legitimate calls from her phone, and Verizon doesn’t take responsibility for blocks that don’t work.

She asked for a supervisor, who suggested Neuwirth contact Dateline, the 900 number company.

“I asked them how I could get in touch with the company and they suggested calling the 900 number!” Neuwirth said. “I gave up, hoping for a miracle on my February bill.”

The February bill brought no new charges, but no credits, either.

During Neuwirth’s fourth call to Verizon, she was again told there would be no credits and that the company isn’t responsible for blocks that don’t work.

The March bill arrived with another Dateline charge for $8.55, so Neuwirth made her fifth call to Verizon.

“Verizon offered to cancel my phone service, saying this was the only way to stop the calls from happening,” Neuwirth said.

Neuwirth finally reached a customer service rep who told her about the Verizon Call Gate service, which for $6 a month, would block specific exchanges or phone numbers. She signed up immediately.

The resolution and a twist

Bamboozled asked Verizon to take a closer look at Neuwirth’s complaints.

“We discovered that there were a couple of manual and electronic errors in trying to achieve credits,” Verizon spokesman Rich Young said.

Neuwirth’s April bill showed credits for $25.62 and $34.16. But in May, new charges appeared from Dateline.

So why isn’t the call block working, and who is making the calls?

Contrary to Neuwirth’s fear that the Dateline 900-number was for — let’s call it adult entertainment — the number is actually for a U.K.-based online gaming company called Jagex, and the charges were monthly membership subscriptions.

Subscribers are offered payment methods, including a pay-by-phone option. Call the 900 number, receive a PIN to play online and Jagex bills the phone that makes the call.

Further questioning of Neuwirth’s 15-year-old son found he has played RuneScape, a fantasy game by Jagex, but he swears his account is the free version. He said he hasn’t played in more than a year and he’s never called the 900 number.

An e-mail conversation with Jagex revealed two of the charges were for user names belonging to Neuwirth’s son, but other charges were for user names that remain unclaimed. (Her son’s friends, perhaps?)

Neuwirth is following up with Jagex to try to permanently stop the charges.

Perhaps Verizon should contact Jagex so the phone company doesn’t have to eat the charges. It can find the 900 number on Neuwirth’s bills.

Tips for effective complaints

To resolve billing problems, start with customer service. If needed, ask for a supervisor.
If that doesn’t work, write an old-fashioned, snail mail complaint letter.

Pen a polite, unemotional missive about your experience. Explain your problem, including a timeline, names of people you’ve spoken with and include copies of relevant paperwork. At the end, suggest a solution.

There’s no need to get dramatic in your letter. Let your experience speak for itself.

Mail your letter return-receipt requested to the head of customer service, with additional copies to company executives.

If you don’t get satisfaction, complain to the Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov) and to any other organization that covers the kind of company you’re battling. Then think about giving me a shout.

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