HomestoryCorporateering Campaign › T-Mobile To Start Charging Customers For Receiving Bill In The Mail

News Story

T-Mobile To Start Charging Customers For Receiving Bill In The Mail

MSNBC
-- Rob Connor of Charleston, S.C., watches his bills carefully. So he's
pretty "steamed" that soon he's going to have to pay for the right to
do so.

Connor is caught in a debate that could pit
environmentalists against consumer rights advocates over the basic
monthly task of paying the bills.

Connor's mobile phone
provider, T-Mobile, recently sent him a note saying it will now charge
customers $1.50 per month to receive paper bills mailed to their homes,
or $3.50 per month for detailed bills. E-mailed bills are free, but
Connor says that won't help him. He doesn't have Internet access at
home.

T-Mobile says it's making the change, which takes
effect in September, in part to help the environment, but Connor
doesn't buy that.

"This thing of having to pay so I can
pay is just a little too much," he said. "And I'm certainly not
interested in some bogus argument about me contributing to global
warming by not signing on to making it cheaper for T-Mobile to send me
a bill."

Is T-Mobile stiffing consumers like Connor or
helping the environment? Many companies are strongly encouraging
consumers to forgo paper bills in favor of electronic versions. Sprint
offers a $5 credit to consumers to enroll in online billing. Verizon
recently offered consumers who make the switch a chance to win a Toyota
Prius.

But T-Mobile's fee for even summary paper bills
marks one of the most aggressive steps by companies trying to push
consumers into the paperless world.

"After considering a
number of factors, including rising costs for paper, printing, and
postage, as well as environmental impacts associated with printing
paper bills, T-Mobile has started to charge customers who would like to
receive a paper bill," the company said in a statement. It stressed
that consumers can access billing information online for free at any
time or, in some cases, with their handsets.

The firm
is not the first wireless company to charge for paper bills. Verizon
Wireless and AT&T charge $2 monthly fees for consumers who want to
receive detailed bill statements via U.S. mail. Basic summary bills are
still free, however.

The cost savings for the companies
are obvious. Verizon recently said it saves about $600,000 each year
for every 100,000 customers who go without paper bills. In 2008, the
firm replaced paper bills with electronic versions, saving 4.3 million
pounds of paper, or about 52,000 trees, it said.

The
PayItGreen Alliance – a banking industry group – says that if 20
percent of U.S. households switched to electronic bills, 1.8 million
trees would be saved each year.

But Connor thinks he
has a right to the paper bills for free, and he's not alone. T-Mobile
customers have taken their displeasure with the new policy to the
Internet, registering complaints on dozens of Web sites.T-Mobile’s own
consumer message boards are full of angry notes.

“It
really pisses my off when companies hide behind the environmental
wackos for a reason why not to include services anymore,” reads one.

“E-mails
don't receive much weight from me, I respond much quicker and better to
a physical bill in the mail than an electronic statement,” said another.

Get out of their contracts?

Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog and lead attorney in several
lawsuits against the mobile industry, says Conner and other complainers
may have legal grounds for their objection. He recently settled a
lawsuit against Nextel Corp. for requiring consumers to pay for
detailed billing statements back in 2003. As part of the settlement,
Nextel agreed to refund customers. He says consumers are entitled to
bills and invoices that itemize costs.

"There's a lot of
policy language in state and federal law that says consumers need to be
able to determine the validity of a bill," he said. "You need to know
if you're being overcharged, if you've received a promotional discount.
You can't figure anything out from a bill if all they give you is a
single un-itemized bill."

Rosenfield says he's seen hospital bills where the consumer was charged $2.50 to obtain a copy of the bill.

"To bill you for the price of billing you is an outrage" he said. "It's the cost of doing business."

T-Mobile counters that it is providing a free means for customers to receive their bills – on the Web.

Nextel
also made that case, Rosenfield said, but at the time, millions of the
firm's consumers did not have Internet access. T-Mobile probably has a
stronger case on that point today, but Rosenfield still thinks consumers
who want itemized paper bills shouldn't have to pay for them.

Meanwhile,
many T-Mobile consumers are wondering if the new paper bill fee
constitutes a change in contract terms which would allow customers to
break their contracts without paying an early termination fee.

T-Mobile says no.

"It
doesn't qualify for opt out in the contract because customers were
given 30 days notices as part of terms and conditions. They have the
option to opt out. And they have access to bills for free online," said
a company spokesman, speaking on condition he not be identified.

But Rosenfield said the firm has clearly changed the cost to consumers – a $50 plan now costs $50 plus at least $1.50 to get a paper bill – so
consumers should have the right to cancel.

"If a company starts charging for a service that they previously did for free... that’s a material change for sure," he said. "I think consumers can get out of their contracts."