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AT&T sends 83-year-old man $24,000 bill (for dial-up)

Technically Incorrect: A California man is flummoxed when AT&T insists he must pay a massive bill that he's sure he didn't deserve.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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AT&T does a lovely job of presenting its customer service. AT&T/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Yes, these things can happen.

But it's what happens after they happen that often seems bemusing.

In this case, reported by the Los Angeles Times, 83-year-old Ron Dorff from Woodland Hills, Calif., got a disturbing bill in March from AT&T. It was for $8,596.57. Given that he reportedly thought he had a $51 a month subscription for quite pedestrian dial-up, he thought this was strange.

He reportedly explained this to AT&T, who reportedly said it would send a technician. A technician who was slower than the dial-up. He allegedly never arrived at all.

The bills reportedly kept on coming. And increasing. Until they reached $24,298.16. He called AT&T. A rep told him he had to pay.

At this point, he contacted the Los Angeles Times. Strangely, the minute its David Lazarus called AT&T, the company insisted that the bill would be waived and it was already in the process of doing so before the reporter called.

Even more strangely, AT&T has sent large, slightly inexplicable bills before.

A few years ago, I received an e-mail from the mother of Evan Brainerd, a US Army captain stationed in Afghanistan. One of his soldiers, Pfc. Jose Rivera, had received a $16,000 AT&T bill. AT&T stood firm that it should be paid. When I contacted AT&T, the bill magically evaporated.

This isn't to single out AT&T. These stories surely happen in many businesses, inside and outside the telecom industry. What is perplexing is why, when a strange bill appears in front of a customer service agent, they don't consider that the source of the strangeness might be the company itself.

In Dorff's case, it seems that his dial-up was constantly dialing up a long-distance number for no apparently sane reason.

"The charges were due to our customer not using a local phone number option for dial-up connection to his Internet access provider," and AT&T spokesman confirmed. "We have waived the charges and explained to him how to use a local number to reach his service."

However, I still wonder how charges like these are allowed to escalate without a sufficiently thorough suspicion that it might not be the customer's fault.

When American Express, for example, sees a strange amount being charged to my account, it e-mails and/or calls to ask whether I really have just spent $842 on books written in Norwegian. (I apologize, and they tell me not to do it again.) Would it be so difficult for phone companies to be this proactive?

Yes, some customers don't tell the truth. Some take their phones abroad and think the charges will be the same as they are at home. (Which they should be, but somehow aren't.)

But how likely is it that an 83-year-old man with dial-up is going to rack up $24,000 worth of charges?

AT&T says it is "Mobilizing Your World." That's surely more positive than bankrupting it.

Update at 1:06 p.m. PT: with statement from AT&T.