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How to complain about: Cell phone firms

Click for the entire series.
Click for the entire series.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it really make a sound? If a consumer complaint about cell phones is closed but no one has even read it, will any company care?

The question is not rhetorical. If a consumer feels mistreated by his or her cell phone company, federal law offers the aggrieved person only one court of appeal: the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau. The process is easy and straightforward. Click here, fill out a few online forms, and your complaint is filed.

Click for the entire series.

Easy does not mean effective, however. A study by the Government Accountability Office released last year found that 9 out of 10 times, the FCC simply closes the complaint without taking any action. Worse yet, the government auditors said last year, the FCC can't say why it closed the cases. It doesn't even track that.

The short answer to the question "How do I complain about my cell phone company?" is "Tell the FCC." That's not necessarily the best way, however. So today, in part two of our "How to Complain About" series, we'll describe the formal complaint process and then the effective complaint process.

From mid-2007 to mid-2008 — the most recent period for which data are available — the FCC received 52,823 complaints about wireless companies. They apparently fell on deaf ears.

There's a simple reason for this, said the auditors. The FCC is far more interested in quickly closing cases and generating statistics than in finding out what's going on.

That was my experience late last year when I decided to submit myself to the FCC complaint process. I felt Sprint was overcharging me on my last bill when I canceled my service. On Dec. 5, I filed an online FCC complaint. In mid-January, I received notice that the FCC had opened an "informal" investigation. Soon after, I received a letter from Sprint saying I was wrong. The FCC, which also received the letter, then declared the case closed.

The experience made the FCC seem much more like a re-mailing service than a government agency ready to protect me. After all, I could have sent the letter to Sprint myself. Of course, there was an avenue to appeal my case, but only if I paid a $190 filing fee.

(You can read more about this in "Sprint: Judge and Jury").

Filing an FCC complaint can feel fruitless, but it's still a good idea. Numbers really do matter. A surge in complaints could have a meaningful impact now, with a set of new faces poised to take over as FCC commissioners. Mignon Clyburn of South Carolina was named last week to fill the last remaining opening on the commission. Clyburn, who was a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and is a former newspaper publisher, might be more sympathetic to consumer issues. Now would be a good time to grab her attention and the attention of Julius Genachowski, who was nominated as FCC chairwoman in January. Both are awaiting congressional confirmation. You can do that by filling out the FCC's online complaint form.

Also, there is a real benefit to following through with a complaint. When the FCC opened its informal investigation into my case, I received a personal e-mail from Sprint's Executive & Regulatory Services department. While I did not get the answer I wanted, the woman who contacted me was competent and polite — hardly a given when dealing with a main customer support line. And she was able to quickly solve a secondary problem for me: Sprint had actually failed to terminate my contract when I requested. Had I not filed the complaint, I wouldn't have had a paper trail proving I'd requested service termination, and I wouldn't have had a personal contact to help me. So you should file a complaint, too.

The indirect route

But don't stop there. It may be some time before the FCC's rubber-stamp mentality is stamped out. So if you're trying to get fair treatment from your cell phone company, you'll probably have to try a few indirect routes.

State public utility commissions do not have direct regulatory oversight of cell phone firms, but they can offer influence. Some states, like Connecticut, collect and compile cell phone industry complaint data, which can affect policy and future legislative reforms. It's easy to find the right address or phone number for your state utility board. Just visit this Web site and pick your state.

You might get more effective results by complaining directly to your state attorney general's office and, in particular, its office of consumer affairs. While your state's top cop doesn't have direct authority over cell phone firms, he or she can file a lawsuit on your behalf. But more practically, a phone call or letter from the attorney general often does get the attention of a cell phone company. Don't be shy about calling. Many states have very effective legal staffs, and it's often easier than you think to speak directly with an attorney. Because most attorneys general are hard at work running for future office, they are often very good about handling constituents' complaints.

Some larger cities and counties have their own consumer advocacy offices. Those are worth contacting, as well.

The easiest way to find state and local advocates, including your state attorney general's office, is to click here.

Finally, many consumers overlook the obvious: Getting help from the offending company. I know many of you have already become disenchanted after an unsatisfying bout with front-line customer service operators. But don't give up yet. Try alternative routes. One that's often successful: Search online for the office of the CEO and e-mail, call, or write a letter. You'll want to find the "office of executive service" or a similarly named group within the company. The addresses aren't hard to find with a little Googling, but you'll usually have luck if you call the firm's main switchboard and ask for the CEO's office by name. One place to start is Consumerist.com, which offers a handy list of CEO names and switchboard numbers.

Also, a welcome trend at cell phone firms is the creation of internal "customer advocate groups."

• Sprint has one, which can be reached by sending an e-mail to cag@sprint.com. The president of the group, Bill Griffiths, is constructively perusing complaints about Sprint on blogs around the Web and offering help to unhappy consumers. But the firm says consumers should still try standard channels as their first option, such as Sprint's home page or toll-free number. They can also send an e-mail to Dan@sprint.com, an e-mail address named after Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, and designed to offer quick access to customer service.

• Verizon also has a "Customer Advocacy Group," but it currently offers only an online form.

• T-Mobile Customers must go through a normal customer contact Web site.

Though the company offers useful forums for customers there.

• AT&T Wireless offers only its general customer support page.

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