April 25, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
Rhonda Payne went to an AT&T Wireless store in Calhoun, Ga., recently to pay her phone bill in cash. She'd been hit by ID theft and was forced to close her checking account, so she was worried she wouldn’t be able to mail a check on time. But when she arrived at the store, she was in for a surprise.
Paying in person, she was told, costs extra -- $2 extra.
Payne objected to the "administrative charge" that was added to her bill but got no sympathy. Instead, she said, she was told she should consider herself lucky because the fee was about to go up to $5.
"I was told that it was a courtesy to take cash,” she said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
It’s no joke. Beginning earlier this year, AT&T Wireless began to charge customers who pay their bills in their stores.
"It is a way of saving money ... it helps us keep our costs lower," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. "We want our associates to spend their time helping customers as they are thinking about their wireless plans or looking at phones."
There are multiple ways for consumers to pay their bills for free, he added -- in the mail, by electronic payment and on the Web. There are even kiosks in stores where bill payments can be dropped off for free. But having a sales clerk take the payment costs extra.
"If someone really wants to pay using the service of a representative, we think it's appropriate to assess this fee," Siegel said.
The fee might remind some of the "talk-to-a-teller" fee introduced by First National Bank of Chicago in 1995.
Siegel said such fees are routine in other industries, too, citing credit cards as an example.
In fact, most credit card issuers do charge a similar fee, called "pay-to-pay." Consumers who call up banks to pay their credit card bills -- often at the last minute to avoid interest charges or late fees – often are assessed "pay-to-pay" fees ranging from $5 to $15. The practice has recently drawn scrutiny in Congress, and a credit card reform bill introduced by Sen. Carl Levin , D-Mich., would ban the practice.
Hurts the poor most
Consumer advocate Ed Mierzwinski, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said he's concerned about AT&T's new fee for another reason: It hits poor people hardest because they are most likely to pay in stores.
"It's targeted at people who don't have bank accounts,” he said. “...It's punitive and largely indefensible.
"It's just unfair to me and I'm shocked by it. People that have less money have to pay more to pay their bills. … It hurts people that really don't have a choice."
Studies show that 10 million to 12 million Americans don't have bank accounts and have to pay their bills in cash, he said. Some are undocumented workers; others are consumers who have bounced too many checks in the past and are ineligible for checking accounts. Sometimes called the "unbanked," consumers who live in this cash economy are finding it harder and harder to maintain basic services, Mierzwinski said.
"I think (AT&T’s fee) is going to lead to more companies charging more to people who want to pay with cash," he said.
Siegel denied that AT&T was targeting cash customers and said his company offers pay-as-you-go pre-paid phones that are better suited for consumers who want to pay in cash.
Payne has complained to state regulators and to the Federal Communications Commission, but hasn't received a refund -- or an explanation that satisfies her.
"This fee charged by AT&T is ripping off poor people," she said. "I've told everybody I know about this."