New Company Dodge: "We Can't Answer, Due to Customer Privacy"

Last Updated Jul 26, 2011 4:55 PM EDT

AT&T doesn't want me to tell you about Williard Wright.

Back in 2009, he moved his phone service from AT&T to Comcast. At least that's what he thought. His daughter-in-law, Donna Gilbert recently discovered he was still paying for his AT&T service, years after he thought he'd closed his account.

Gilbert found the problem while she was helping Wright with his finances. She phoned AT&T and it quickly offered to refund six months worth of payments.

Why not the entire bill?
"The supervisor said that she was only obligated to refund 60 days of payments, but was being generous by refunding 6 months," she told me. "She said that my father-in-law shouldn't have paid the bill so that was his fault. I asked to speak to her supervisor, but she said he didn't take calls."

I asked AT&T to investigate, and a representative contacted Gilbert again. This time, her 90-year-old father-in-law was offered a $250 refund by the company, which covered 16 months of the 27 months during which he had a phone bill, but no phone service.

Gilbert was happy.

I wasn't.

Why not refund the entire phone bill? I asked. An AT&T representative said he couldn't discuss the matter with me because of "customer privacy" issues. I followed up with a general question about AT&T's policy that says only 60 days worth of bills were required to be refunded.

He didn't answer my email.

I have mixed feelings about this resolution. Even though I'm pleased that Gilbert and her father-in-law are getting more money back, I'm troubled that AT&T has apparently decided to invoke customer privacy, when the customer has obviously waived her privacy by asking me for help.

This isn't the only time a company has ducked behind the privacy excuse. But it's only happened a few times during my career as a consumer advocate, and only with worst companies.

I never considered AT&T one of those businesses. And by way of full disclosure, I'm a relatively happy AT&T customer.

What is privacy?
This may be as good a time as any to take a hard look at the definition of privacy.

When consumers say "privacy" they think of their own, of course. Is a company going to share my social security number or credit card number with a third party? Is it going to send images of full-body scans around the office for kicks (don't laugh; those images have made the rounds).

But when companies say "privacy," they often mean something completely different. After all, customer data is a commodity to be freely shared with its business partners, and it routinely is. It's what your summer interns put on a pen drive and then lose while they're at the bar, exposing customers' passwords and usernames to the bad guys.

When they say privacy, aren't they really referring to their own privacy?

Aren't they really asking: Does this have to be publicly disclosed? If there were a discovery motion in a lawsuit, would these emails have to be released?

And yes, do we have to tell a nosy reporter why we're pocketing a 90-year-old former customer's money?

It's an important distinction. Because when you hear a company talking about the importance of privacy â€" even when it's talking about customer privacy â€" it helps to define your terms.

Related:

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: samantha celera/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.