Why I was an AT&T wireless customer…for 72 hours.

For the last 7-8 years, I have been a loyal Virgin Mobile customer. I liked the prepaid pricing plan, the customer service, I didn’t want a large monthly bill or overage charges. Everything was perfect. Well, almost everything.

The phones sucked. Completely. While everyone around me had the latest, greatest phones from Nokia and Motorola, I was stuck with cheap, archaic-looking models with limited features and horrible battery life. So, a few weeks ago my wife and I started looking around and decided on prepaid GoPhone, from AT&T/Cingular wireless.

We chose AT&T because they’ve been around forever. My wife had tried Amp’d Mobile last year for a few months, but when they went under she came back to Virgin. She didn’t want to switch unless it was a big name with big staying power. And they don’t come much bigger than AT&T.

I found us some great “refurbished” phones at att.com. I say “refurbished” because they looked brand new to me, and I suspect they were (a great article for another time) Probably just a slightly older model or maybe a display model. I used the website to complete the deal and filled out the form to carry over our current numbers.

Go away

"You talkin' to me? Not for long, I'll transfer you...again."

The problems begin.
I spent a grand total of 6 hours on phone calls trying to complete the number transfer, also known as porting. I was passed from one department to another. One annoying feature of AT&T customer service that immediately became apparent is that GoPhone customers are treated like second-class citizens. It was impossible to get straight through to a GoPhone rep, I often had to punch or say my phone number 3-4 times before I got to anyone, and on three occasions the phone went dead on me. Nice.

Unlike any other company I have ever dealt with, AT&T requires your prepaid account number to complete the porting process. Do you know what your prepaid account number is? Doubtful, it’s usually something you have to call and ask for because you never need to know it. You buy it from the store, you top up with cards, as far as you are concerned your account number is your phone number. Not so.

So, after doing a whole bunch more calling, I got the info and completed the port. End of story? Not quite. When my wife had left that morning, she had $10 in credit on the phone. She called me a few hours later, it was almost gone. “$10 in a few hours, what have you been doing?” I said. It turns out that unlike Virgin Mobile, AT&T charges you 25 cents/minute per call for everything. That means not just regular calls, but calls to check your messages, your balance, anything. 25 cents comes out the first second you make a connection, which didn’t surprise me. If you receive a call, 25 cents/minute also applies. Again, not so shocking. Then I found out that a call to 411 for 30 seconds had cost over $2.30! Ouch. We burned up a further $30 between us in the span of 3 days, although I was double-billed and I'm disputing one $15 charge. We also discovered that, unlike Virgin, your money expires. $15 lasts only 30 days, regardless of how much you use.

I know, I know. I should have read all that small print, so that’s my fault completely. I just couldn’t believe how expensive this no-contract phone was. So, we decided to bite the bullet and get a contract plan with T-Mobile, which came with great free phones and the most minutes around for the price.

But then we needed to carry over our numbers from AT&T. Now, guess how easy it is to get your prepaid account number from AT&T? Well, when you realize that the only reason you need an account number from a GoPhone is to switch to another cell phone carrier, you quickly understand that the process is not simple. In fact, I spent an enormous amount of time on the phone, again, before finally being transferred to an office in India (big surprise). And the whole time, I was questioned about why I was leaving.

Is there a moral to this story. Most definitely it’s READ EVERY PIECE OF SMALL PRINT YOU CAN. If I had done so, I’d probably have saved myself almost a full day on the phone and at least $30 in airtime that lasted less than an hour. Also, if you do go prepaid, use it sparingly and it makes all kinds of sense. But use it more often than that and you’re eating up money. From what I can understand, Virgin is still way ahead of everyone else in the prepaid arena, apart from the crappy phones.

So, my apologies to Virgin. You’ve always been great and I’m sorry I had to leave you (update your phones and I'll be back). And to AT&T, I’m saying nothing. I’ve quickly discovered that talking to AT&T can be a costly affair.

Additional photo credit: Stock Exchange
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Guest's picture

I think I must have been lucky.

I've had a cellphone for some 16 years now. I got my first one back in the UK in 1991. Always had digital. That first one was awful quality... I had 3 or 4 of them. A Motorola brick...

Anyway, when I came to the US, I bought a nice GSM Microsoft Smartphone with me. It's tri-band so I knew it would work here, even though the digital coverage here at the time was very patchy.

I'd had some of that exorbitant pre-paid charges from Cingular, as I'd got a sim-card from them when I got here so I had some kind of service and they were GSM.

I made inquiries about a contract plan as 39cents/min was well over the top. They wanted a $300 deposit as I'd not had a cellphone in the US before, and at that time had no credit history either.

How much interest do you pay on the deposit I asked, in all seriousness. The Cingular guy laughed. I didn't. He said you're serious aren't you? Yes, I was.

I politely told Mr Cingular Guy, where he could put the service, and went to AllTel. Ok, I couldn't use my useful Smartphone, as AllTel are CDMA, and ended up with a basic Nokia for 99 cents for two years.

We're still with AllTel. I've got a nice litle Kyocera now that has a keyboard on, and the wife now has a Blackberry that I got her (contract-free) on eBay.

Here, the AllTel service is the best I've had anywhere, never yet found any serious dead spots either, and never ever any overages.

Guest's picture

I've had a Cingular/AT&T prepaid GoPhone for a couple of years now, and I would definitely switch to T-Mobile prepaid if I used the phone much at all (as it is, I use less than 200 minutes a year). T-mobile prepaid gives you 1000 minutes for a $100 top-off card, vs. 400 for AT&T. My son decided he was going to buy himself a prepaid phone with his Christmas bux, and after carefully researching decided that t-mobile was the way to go if you didn't want to commit to a contract. Boost would have been a slightly better deal, but I think the lame phone problem is even worse with them.

Here's a good comparison tool for different prepaid providers:

Guest's picture

My husband and I had a regular wireless plan with ATT when we first got married 5 years ago. It was the first (and one of only three) companies I have ever filed a complaint against with the BBB. You say that as a Pre-paid customer, you were treated like crap. Well, guess what - that's how they treat ALL customers! The man I talked to for an hour blatantly refused to transfer me to a supervisor after I had requested he do so 4 times. (In an think accent: "You don't need a supervisor - I can help you") He finally put me on "hold" to "research something" and hung up on me. Just the memory still makes my blood boil!

Guest's picture

Is by far the best prepaid company- in terms of value and service. I've traveled all over the northeast, and have never ONCE been below two bars (except in the upper two floors of a hall on campus, but they block out certain receptions?)

The phones ARE horrible, but the K10 royale is sturdy and holds a long charge- albeit a very low tech phone. The Marbl (of which I have two..) is flimsy and annoying. It takes FOREVER to get from screen to screen, and there's serious text lag. The slice may be the poorest made phone I have ever touched. However, my ex LOVES the snapper. He's had it for about a year, a year and a half and it still works perfectly.

Also, Virgin Mobile's customer service cannot be beat- provided you can get past the annoying (slightly rude?) "Simone" automated system. I find that, "BRING ME TO CUSTOMER SERVICE YOU EVIL BITCH! Please.. please.. for the love of god... *sob*.." usually puts me through.

Guest's picture

We've only ever had a pre-paid cell phone too. After comparing prices we went with Net10, a somewhat obscure company. The were and still are the cheapest - even cheaper than Virgin. Their coverage is good and ... well ... I only dealt with customer service once when I forgot to recharge my phone before the deadline. They got me up and running in about 10 minutes, so I was happy.

Paul Michael's picture

I do have to wonder, why doesn't Virgin Mobile have better phones? Richard Branson is a smart, savvy guy (I met him, did work for him on Virgin Atlantic and the launch of Virgin Mobile in the UK). Considering that Virgin Mobile's main audience is the younger generation, teens, Gen Y, Gen X, he should know that this market is the most discerning about phone choice. Why not give them the cooler phones, like the Razr, Blackberry, Chocolate etc. Anyone know?

Guest's picture

I recommend Tmobile-to-go for prepaid plans. I currently buy my minutes in $100 blocks for 1000 minutes and the minutes last a year. But I get the $100 cards cheap (I just bough one for $88). So, I pay 8.8 cents a minute for any call. My minutes basically never expire.

My dad has the same thing. But he just had his phone for a year and didn't use his 1000 minutes and had 600 left. So, I bought a $10 card (not many minutes; maybe 30 I think) and it extended the new minutes AND the old 600 minutes for another year!

Tmobile also has the best customer service. But make sure they have coverage as they have more limited coverage.

byw, I love reading your blog!

Guest's picture

ive had a real plan through verizon for about 6 years and i absolutely love them. customer service is great and the reception is great too!

Guest's picture

I actually use both Virgin Mobile and Page Plus. I figured since we were going to keep our cell phones prepaid, I might as well have one phone on the Sprint PCS network (VM) and one on Verizon's network (PP) so that we'd have coverage just about everywhere we'd go. While I like VM, I find that Page Plus actually has better overall rates, and you can also use just about any cdma phone with Page Plus.

Guest's picture

Or you could sign a low end contract...

Guest's picture

I went through just about every major phone company before settling on T-mobile, even with the occasional service problems and years of crappy phones. Why? Simply the best customer service in the industry. You can call T-mobile, talk to a PERSON who will solve your problem almost immediately, and be done with it in less than 10 minutes nearly every time.

And it gets better. I recently bought a Blackberry through T-mobile (now in my 5th year with them), and it turns out that they have a whole separate level of customer service for BlackBerry owners. They must assume you're an executive or something, because since I got this BlackBerry, they now treat me like chocolate covered gold.

Everytime I hear someone going on about how much their cellular phone company sucks, I sit back and smile, knowing that my life (in this respect, at least) is wicked good. I highly recommend you make the switch.

And GET OFF THE PRE-PAID plans. They're just a huge tax on people who can't maintain a budget. You're being ripped off, and I'm sure you already know it!

Guest's picture

Are you joking? This past summer I had nothing but problems with T-Mobile's lackadaisical customer service. So much happened that eventually they started to ignore my emails completely (yes, I was calling them too; like I said, a lot was going on) and I decided to break the service contracst to move on. Absolutely clueless, nothing but problems and it culminated this past summer...I couldn't take it anymore. Did I mention that the coverage I got was pretty shoddy? I could get a good signal where I lived, but not at any of my jobs or my parents' house!

Guest's picture

I have nine years with at&t and share your disappointment with the level of service you experienced. I dispute the notion that at&t wireless transferred you to an Indian call center - we do not have Indian call centers. That is what you get for trying to use the internets, you should have gone into a retail store and they would have been able to get everything situated the first time. As a customer you chose your plan - not the company. Better luck next time.

Guest's picture

AT&T is the king of nickel&diming. When I moved into my last place, I signed up for a 12-month DSL contract two weeks after I moved in (I had ordered the land line before I moved in). When I was ready to move out at the end of a year, I called to cancel my landline and DSL. I was told that since I was canceling the landline before the end of the DSL contract, that would terminate the DSL (they can't have one without another), and that would generate a $100 early termination fee. I told them I was willing to pay the full term of my contract, I just needed the landline canceled since I was moving out. I was told I couldn't cancel the landline without the DSL also being canceled, and I couldn't be billed for the remainder of the DSL contract (two weeks) if it was canceled.

After a couple of hours going back and forth, I hung up, contacted the rental management (great company), and asked if anyone was renting the place the next day after I moved out. There wasn't, so I called AT&T back and set the landline and DSL cancellation for the day the contracted ended, even though I was moved out and left an empty apartment. $20 vs. $100. Their inability to incorporate common sense into their billing practices and allow customers to honor their contracts under different circumstances lost them a customer for life.

Paul Michael's picture

...the accent was a thick Indian dialect following an obvious scripted routine. But if this CSR was in America, I'll have to take your word. It's a bit odd though to say "don't use the internets" as that would imply att.com is not a reliable way to buy service and should be avoided. Something AT&T would not advocate as it cuts out a lot of the middlemen and reduces their prices. Plus, the refurbished phones we wanted weren't available in any of stores we visited. Hardly a good choice for the consumer.

Guest's picture

The virgin mobile phones has to do with deals between the prepaid company any and the phone manufacturers?

Either way, the sub par phones are totally worth it for me in exchange for an amazing service (and the privileged of staying far, far away from contract services, ugh). I may upgrade to the snapper or go back to the K10, depending on finances.

Guest's picture

Can you not simply buy a new phone and switch SIM cards? I've done this several times. You have to pay for a new phone but you can keep the plan and number.

Paul Michael's picture

Virgin Mobile doesn't let you do that, I tried with several phones. It has to do with the fact that Virgin Mobile has to basically activate the phone for you, and they won't do it with anything other than a VM phone. My wife had a beautiful  Motorola phone but it wouldn't fly with VM.

Guest's picture

The interweb works fine, but the consumer has to know what he/she is buying. There is no fine print on the website, the website lists the two pay-as-you-go plans very clearly; in fact, in bold it says: 'WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND PAY AS YOU GO UNLIMITED TALK' and demonstrates the savings. You saved a whopping $40 by buying an entry level phone on the site as opposed to simply going to one of our stores supporting retail and having a human explain things. I 'port' numbers from other carriers all day long and rarely have a problem, the only time is when the customer does not have their OSP (old service provider) info correct; do not blame at&t for that, blame Virgin for a sorry customer service interface. Sorry about all that, but sheesh . . .

Guest's picture

you can always go t-mobile and use their flex pay system its prepay but you can pick any of their plans you just have to pay full price for the phone i think. if you pay full price for the phone you do not have to sign a contract you just go month to month

Guest's picture

Slightly off-topic, as this relates to dsl modem issue and not the pre-paid phones.

I have been a customer of att dsl for over a year. My modem has started to blink red lights and not work. I have called repeatedly and their customer support has informed me that my line is working fine and it is probably my modem.

The issue is that I have to buy the modem myself. Turns out, their equipment is warrantied for one year. So, they told me that I need to buy a new modem ($50) to keep their internet service I am already paying for. When I asked for a replacement - NO. They told me I could go to RadioShack for one as well.

Needless to say, I am now switching to another ISP. They will cost more, but I discunt the cost of a new modem and the feelings of being punished for staying with them. New customers get a new modem. Old customers get the shaft.

Guest's picture

Sorry, but no matter how I do the math, I'm still the loser. (Hey, kind of like the candidates for the Republican primary!)

I don't use nearly enough minutes to justify my 300min/month plan with T-Mobe (about 80 in my highest month) but I'm locked in for another 3 years. Plus, if I switched to prepaid, I'd have to get a new phone since my Motorola Pebl doesn't work with any of the prepaids, not even T-Mobe's. And, yeah, I can't understand why ALL of the prepaid phones are just...so...ugly. I know, it should not be a big deal, but I guess it is.

And currently, I'm getting charged for spam text messages (seriously, they're all about "ST0CK MRKT TIPZ", "canaaaadian meds cheapcheapcheap" and "B1GG3R P3N15!") and they're not even from real phone numbers so it's not like I can call them back and yell at them or report them or something. They're all from "004" and "2033" and stuff. It sucks!

Guest's picture

I've had a regular AT&T/Cingular plan for about 8 years now, and I've never seriously thought about switching. The phones are top quality, the reliability of the network can't be beat, and while the prices are a little higher than, say, T-Mobile (who I had previously), the reliability is worth it to me (my cell is my only phone, so it needs to work, all the time).

As far as the customer service goes, I have never had a real problem with them. Yes, they will nickel and dime you to death, but what big corporation doesn't these days? I have stopped believing in companies that don't, and know enough about how customer service reps work to know how to get what I want. I routinely get huge refunds on their nickel and dime tactics, simply by asking if they would. For instance, this month I had a large bill for internet and text usage on my phone, so I called and asked if they had a media plan that would have covered it. They did, and I asked them to sign me up and apply it retroactively. They did, saving me over $100 in charges. I've done this several times with no issues.

Personally, if you are willing to be a little bull-headed with customer service, you can get through to them. The combination of great phones and reliability is something I'm not willing to part with just for a friendlier voice if I have a problem.

Guest's picture

Hi! I have recently received a VM Marbl from a friend. She deleted all her information so it would be clear for me to use. But I'm having problems re-activating it. Everytime I try to start my account, I get up to "phone info" and they ask for the phone's serial number; only when I type it in and retype it to confirm it, they stop me and say they don't have any record of that number. And the number is right inside the phone where it says the serial number should be. So, why are they saying that? What should I do about getting my phone activated? Who do I go to to get my situation straightened out?

Guest's picture

One thing is sure--if you have ATT Wireless pay as you go--your network coverage is reduced significantly.

Guest's picture

$2.30 for a 30-second 411 call surprises even me. The nickel-and-diming is getting more and more ridiculous. Fortunately, there's 1-800-FREE411. We have business, gov't, and residential listings -- really no need to call regular 411 anymore.


Guest's picture

and the quality of service you get with ANY customer care rep is dependent on the attitude that you take with them as soon as you answer the phone. If you start with a classy call opener like "Hi? Hello? FINALLY. Alright this is what's wrong with my phone, and this is what's going to get done with it", AT&T WILL treat you like crap. Speak sympathetically to explain your issue, they'll work with you. Reps are taught how to handle rude and unruly customers.

Second, .25/min is not the plan most people on prepaid would've gotten. We try NOT to offer that plan to anyone, but it seems your wife ended up on the plan regardless. She may have requested it or had a portibg agent set it up for her.

Third, porting a number is something that relies HEAVILY on the carrier that has your number. AT&T can't do anything unless Virgin Mobile answers the port request. They may have been transferring you around until your old carrier made a move, so that one's not on AT&T.

You've got to read the manual (and maybe the terms and conditions) before you start ANY service because you can't complain about the prices after opting to sign up for the service. The information's all there to read if you're interested.

Incidentally, it costs 1.79 to call 411 on AT&T's wireless prepaid network (it's prepaid, so no unlimited informational services dialing), so it's no small wonder that call was expensive.