Crossed Wires

When the telephone was invented in 1876, the major telecommunications issue was most likely whether "hello" or "hoy-hoy" would be the appropriate way to answer the newfangled device. These days, the telephone industry is a touch more complex, as frustrated US West customer Anna Croteau discovered during the last week of June.

Croteau says she got behind on her phone payments but wrote US West a check to clear things up--or so she thought. When the company processed her check, a stray pair of zeros found its way into the figure, transforming the relatively modest sum of $116.31 into a whopping $11,630.01.

Croteau found out about the mixup when her bank, Denver Municipal Federal Credit Union, notified her that the inflated check had bounced. Fortunately, Croteau says, she didn't have thousands of dollars in her account to cover the payment, or her funds would have been drained--at least temporarily. Her first thought was that someone had stolen her checkbook and run up a tab. "I've never in my life written a check that big," she says.

She called US West to straighten things out but says she found herself stuck in the maze of the company's directory-assistance and voice-mail systems. As a result, she explains, she had difficulty getting to talk to a live person at US West about the company's goof. She turned to her credit union, which froze payment on the bungled check.

Croteau also complained to the state's Public Utilities Commission, which comprises a triad of commissioners appointed by the governor to oversee telecommunications, gas, electricity and some water providers in Colorado. The commission referred Croteau's complaint to US West, which put a customer service representative on the case. The company has offered to pay any bank fees incurred by Croteau because of the bounced check, but her bank has already waived those fees.

Croteau says she feels like no one except the credit union cares about what happened. "I would like things to be a little more like they used to be," she laments. "Where, when there was a problem, you could go in and talk to a human being."

If Croteau had simply called the right number, says US West spokesman David Beigie, she would have gotten to talk to a person rather than a machine. "Sometimes customers get very ambitious in terms of the way they try to handle their own problems," says Beigie. "We live in a modern world, and we can use computers to get people to the area where help is most readily available."

US West, which bills itself as "one of the largest telecommunications firms in the world," was the target of 3,107 complaints received by Colorado's Public Utilities Commission in the past year, says spokesman Terry Bote, and about 350 of those involved billing problems.

But the problem Croteau encountered is unusual, say Bote, Beigie and Steve Bouras, vice president of marketing at the credit union. "It's not too often there's such an encoding error, especially of that dollar amount," Bouras says.

There was still a glitch, though. Croteau's US West account reflected an $11,000-plus credit (which, of course, doesn't really exist), so technically she couldn't pay the $116.31 she owed in the first place.

Two tin cans connected by a string, anyone?