Credit Guards (or AT&T pt. 2)

When my “favorite” service provider AT&T (tongue-clearly-in-cheek) challenged my creditworthiness last month amidst an adventurous request for internet service, I was forced to bow down before the Big Three. No, not Ford, Chrysler, Dodge – I don’t drive any of ’em. And not CBS, NBC, ABC either – I can now stream their programming (since I finally have internet). Rather, today’s big three are Equifax, Experian, TransUnion – those behind-the-curtains guards who man the credit rating tollbooths as sternly as passport checkers from former Eastern Bloc countries.

Credit guard companies are more difficult to deal with than credit card companies.  The moment I entered college, offers for credit came pouring into my mailbox.  I could qualify for ridiculous amounts on little plastic cards, even though I was a penniless freshman with little reportable income.  But they want you hooked on credit at an early age so you’ll pay back a lifetime of fees in interest.  Yet now, with decades of credit history under my belt (all of it positive, I say with muted pride), dealing with the credit guards is infinitely more challenging.  It’s like walking up to Fort Knox and asking for a bar of gold.

If you don’t check (or even know) your credit score, you may not be familiar with the Big Three.  They’re like triplets hired to do the same job: “consumer credit reporting agencies… collecting and aggregating information… on consumers and businesses worldwide”.  Equifax tracks 800 million consumers.  Experian tracks a billion.  In other words, the next time you use your credit card, you can bet the Guards will be watching.

The Guards help themselves to your transaction, blend it with the others you’ve racked up recently, look at how well you manage your total credit and debt, and come up with a score.  If you and your wallet behave, you get a number in the neighborhood of 700; if not, you’re closer to 500 (sounds like a college entrance exam, no?) 1.2% of Americans maintain an absolutely perfect credit score, though darned if I know how they do it.  Maybe they pay for everything in cash.

Consumer credit reporting agencies are b-o-r-i-n-g (I’m surprised you’ve made it this far) so I’m not fired up to write about them today.  Instead, let me tell you a story – humor at my expense, really – where the Guards were peripherally involved… and I was fired up.

When I was battling working with AT&T on my request for internet last month, the customer service rep stole took a full hour of my valuable time to botch set up the account, even though I already had another account with AT&T for wireless service.  He asked a million questions (including the oft-scripted “how’s the weather where you are today?”).  A marathon later – because I could’ve run one by this point – he said it was time to check my credit.  Here’s where I should’ve thought to hang up because AT&T owns decades of credit history on me (thanks to the Guards).  If AT&T couldn’t tap into my score already then maybe I shouldn’t be doing business with them.  But I really wanted internet so I surrendered cooperated like a good little lamb, supplying my name, rank, and social security number.  And this is where everything went horribly wrong.

“I’m sorry sir, but your credit is blocked.”

Blocked?  What the *$%^#! HECK does that mean?  When I asked him to please explain, my smooth operator countered by saying, “Let me run the check again.  Repeat <your> social security number”… which I did, only to hear the word “blocked” again.  When the third time wasn’t the charm he made a rather stupid bold announcement:

“I’m sorry sir, but you must have an invalid social security number.”

Invalid social?  So you’re saying the nine-digit number I memorized when I was like, oh, an infant; the one I’ve spoken or written millions of times in my life, the one I’ve been trying to protect from identity thieves since I was born, is “invalid”?  What kind of incompetent fool professional was I dealing with here?

More like “think twice”

Again I should’ve slammed the phone down hung up, but silly me, I surrendered more minutes of time to understand my “two options for service when I have blocked credit”.  One, I could set up the account in my wife’s name. Involve an innocent bystander in this circus request and risk divorce?  No way.  Two, I could pay AT&T a $250 retainer fee to offset my newfound credit liability. Okay, NOW I’m insulted.  When I declined both options, my customer service imposter temporary friend apologized, bid me good day, and hung up without another word.  Seriously, he hung up on me (without so much as a sales pitch for DirecTV). I suppose you could call it a fitting conclusion to a totally worthless call.

My story does have a happy ending.  Several days later I mustered the courage to call (A)nguish, (T)orment, & (T)orture again.  Maybe the more you call them the better the service because the next rep let me know my credit was frozen (not “blocked”).  Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!  Frozen credit, for those of you in the not-know, is initiated by the consumer (me).  A credit freeze is put in place to counter identity theft.  I totally forgot I’d done that, like, last century, but thanks to a smidge of online access (the Guards are more hospitable these days) I was able to drop the freeze with just a few keystrokes. Bingo. Credit check passed. Internet service permitted.

The inspiration for this post was a recent headline about Equifax.  The Guard issued millions of incorrect credit scores last spring, which meant consumers were either denied loans when they shouldn’t have been or charged higher-than-deserved interest rates.  One ambitious soul is leading a class action lawsuit to reclaim the interest she never should’ve have paid.  As for me, I choose not to deal with the Guards any more than I have to.  After all, I get enough credit check grief from AT&T.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Oh, For Heaven’s Sake!

A “utility” is defined as a public service, “… a system to provide water or electricity… a cell tower network, or the like”. On dictionary.com, utility is also labeled as an “elementary level” word, meaning a grade school child should be able to understand its meaning. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, because elementary is the perfect way to describe the customer service I’ve received while setting up the utilities in my new house.

Power. Water. Gas. Internet.  I’d call these utilities the four cornerstones of a functioning modern house, wouldn’t you?  Without them you’re just looking at your walls (if you can see them in the dark) wishing you could take a hot shower and check your email.  So why is it so difficult to get the utilities going again when you move, especially when they’re already up and running in the first place?

Power was almost an open and shut-it-off case for me.  I called the supplier to transfer the electricity into my name, which seemed a straightforward process until they sent their technician to the house.  Here we have the classic case of the right hand not talking to the left.  The technician proceeded to turn the power off.  How my neighbor – the former owner – had the presence of mind to stop him in his tracks is beyond me (I owe her something from my kitchen now).  She saved me a week or two of “the lights are off and somebody’s home”.

Water comes from a well where I live.  The best example of good customer service may be no customer service because if you have a well, you don’t have to call anyone at all.  Assuming your well pump is working (and you have power) you simply turn the lever and out comes the water.  But then you realize the water is cold, which is why you need…

Gas – or propane in my case – requires a call to customer service because they won’t let it flow without a safety inspection of the system.  I get it (now) since I have a 500-gallon tank under my house.  This is good news and bad news.  The good news: I’m “energy independent” of a piped network, so as long as my tank has propane I have heat (and a stove to cook on, and a fireplace to enjoy).  The bad news: I get charged for the 500 gallons in one shot instead of paying by the month.  Whoa.  My household budget went off the rails with that bill.  And just how big is a 500-gallon tank of propane anyway?  I’m not sure I want to know.

Is my propane tank the size of a giant peach?

If not for internet, I’d say I’d fared pretty well with setting up my utilities but bless their hearts AT&T makes a big-screen adventure out of the simplest request.  Your phone call takes you to a menu of prompts, then to another menu, then to another menu, until the recorded voice seems to capitulate by finally transferring you to someone who can actually talk (but not think).  The someone who comes on the line is clearly not from your neighborhood (or even your country).  The someone says, “Yes, hello, and how is your day today, Mr. David?”  Mr. David?  No one calls me that ever.  The someone then follows a scripted line of conversation by launching into a series of sales pitches to try to get you to bundle with a bunch of stuff you don’t need.  The someone sighs when you repeatedly decline, and finally says something like, “I’ll now be transferring you to another representative who can help you with that”.

I have to pause, no, stop my AT&T rant for three reasons now.  One, my frustrations will continue for twice as many words as I have space for today.  Two, it’ll drive me to drink just revisiting the experience.  Three, if AT&T reads this post they may be tempted to turn off my internet.  Very long story short, I lost track of the number of someones I talked to, failed AT&T’s screening process three times because of poor credit history (wrong), an incorrect social security number (wrong again), and a street address where AT&T doesn’t provide service (is three times the charm?)

Go figure, the only way I finally succeeded with my internet setup was to request the service through AT&T’s website.  The tech showed up as scheduled, set up the service, and now I’m able to type my blog posts again.  Small miracles.

Because of the newish ways we now communicate with one another (most of them electronic) getting good help or prompt help or even the right help is more of a challenge than ever.  When I share these adventures with family or friends I always hear my late mother remarking, “Oh, for heaven’s sake”.  Maybe she would’ve been better saying, “Heaven help us”, because customer service for utilities down here on earth just isn’t cutting it.