You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Friday, 13 April 2012

and now for something a little different - a Rant against Scum-sucking Faceless Bureaucrats

When I started this blog, I decided that I really didn't want to be one of those bloggers who just whinge and whine. It's one thing to share hard stuff you're going through, it's another to just bitch and moan. I decided that I would apply the advice of the proverb I often heard used as a child - if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Well, maybe that was a good theory - but I can see now that it's just not going to work out in practice.

And so, a rant. If you don't feel inclined to read a rant about the evils of corporations and all such modern inconveniences, feel free to log off now and come back later when there's something more fun going on.

You see, dear reader, I have spent two half-days over the last week on the phone, arguing with the phone company and their debt collectors. Perhaps a shiver is now running down your spine as you recall the horror of your own experience. The news is always full of dreadful statistics about what a disastrous job the telecommunications industry is doing in the area of customer services, if the astounding numbers of complaints, disputes and interventions by the Ombudsman are any indication. What can one say but aaargh! - or perhaps something that would conventionally be spelt with little stars.

It all began when a letter came in the mail, addressed to Mr. CJ. It's part of my job as carer to manage all the administrative matters and paperwork on his behalf. A debt collector was saying that he had a debt to Optus, a matter of $155. The letter mentioned court proceedings and was quite intimidating in its manner of communication. I've noticed that debt collection agencies can take great artistic license in composing their letters. For example, 'repeated attempts to contact you' can mean that they rang once and you didn't answer the phone. On one occasion, I pointed out to a debt collector that that was not entirely accurate. He actually laughed out loud and told me outright that the people who write those letters don't care about accuracy, they just want to get a reaction. Straight from the horse's mouth, folks.

With regards to the the current issue, the obvious problem for me was that Mr CJ has never had an account with Optus, other than a pre-paid phone service. I arranged it like that specifically so that he wouldn't receive any bills. So I was very curious as to where this debt they were alleging actually came from. I rang the debt collector, and asked them. They said they didn't know, all they had was the balance from Optus, which apparently had been 'verified.' So I rang Optus to ask them. They asked for a reference number, and I gave them the number printed on the letter from the debt collector. They said that it wasn't an Optus account number, and they needed an Optus account number to look into it. Another call to the debt collector. No, they definitely don't have an account number, just a balance, and a phone number for the account Mr CJ was being charged for. Now here's where it gets really weird. I recognised the number they gave me as being my friend Dr MJ's home phone number. This is a private number, it is not an Optus number, and it has been in use for over 20 years, with absolutely nothing to do with Mr CJ, who hadn't even met Dr MJ until a few years ago. Cue the music from The Twilight Zone.

At this point the debt collector told me I 'had to' go to the police as this 'must be' fraud. Well, I could just imagine the reaction of the police officer who, in between calls to car accidents and incidents of domestic violence, has to listen to me complain about a phone bill. I really didn't think that was appropriate. Another call to Optus. They used all Mr CJ's details to do a full search and could not find any record of an account in his name. Well, I asked them, why are the debt collectors hassling us? Oh, I don't know. I'm sorry, I can't help you. That was the last phone call with Optus.

I made one more call to the debt collector, and pointed out that neither Optus nor the collection agency were able to find any record of an account or a debt, so I didn't really feel that we could be compelled to pay it. Even so, Ms Debt Collector insisted that we had to pay the debt or legal proceedings would ensue, and that was final.

So by now it was time to call the Telecommunications Ombudsman and register a complaint. The lady I spoke to there did assure me that there would have to some evidence of a debt existing if it had to be paid. At last, a voice of reason! And of action, apparently - only a few moments later Ms DC from the collection agency called me and told me that Optus had recalled the debt, and that I wouldn't be hearing any more from them, the matter was resolved from their point.

Next, a letter in the mail arrived from Optus, apologising very nicely, and cancelling the debt without admitting any liability. Wonderful! I just wanted to get on with my life. I don't care where the mix-up happened, I was just glad it was over.

But no, it wasn't to be that simple. Today, a new letter from the debt collector arrived, addressed to Mr. CJ, and using intimidating language in a slightly different combination of sentences, insisting that the $155 had to be paid.

Still hoping and trusting that this was just another little mix-up, I rang the collection agency to tell them that Optus had recalled the debt and resolved the matter. I had written confirmation from Optus as well as the verbal information given me by Ms Debt Collector over the phone. At this point I was informed that I would have to provide proof to the collection agency that Optus had indeed cancelled the debt, or I would continue to get calls and letters and the debt would continue to accrue and head toward legal proceedings.

Even then I didn't panic. Not too much. I rang the number for the case manager assigned to me by Optus, and left a message explaining the situation. Again, I trusted that she would be able to resolve it. I was about to set myself to doing something relaxing when the phone rang. It was a different man, from the same collection agency, saying he was returning my call. Um, excuse me, but I hadn't left any calls to be returned. I had already spoken to someone earlier. Anyway, he asked me for various reference numbers, and I gave them to him. He told me that I had called the wrong department. I pointed out that I hadn't called him, he had called me, and I still didn't know why. He told me he was going to transfer me to someone who could resolve my problem. Then I found myself on the line with the same Ms DC I had spoken with last week. She insisted that I would have to prove that Optus had cancelled the debt. I felt that that really wasn't my responsibility. Surely it was up to the arrangements between Optus and their debt collector to keep tabs on which debts need to be paid. I find the irony quite striking - last week, I was asking for proof that the alleged debt had ever existed in the first place, and nobody could give me a straight answer, but insisted that I should pay the debt anyway. Now, later, when the issue has apparently been resolved, they are saying that the onus is on me to provide proof that Optus had actually cancelled the debt - apparently Optus had neglected to pass this information on the collectors. I reminded her that she had called me last week and told me that Optus had recalled the debt. How could she have told me that, if Optus hadn't provided her with that information somehow?

At this point, Ms DC squealed in resentment. I never called you, she said - you called me! Well, I can assure you, folks, that I did indeed receive, not make, that call. I have a witness who was there when the phone rang. She also denied that she knew or had said anything about Optus recalling the debt. She kept insisting that I would have to provide the proof that this ever happened. Then she said to me - why are you calling me now? I pointed out that I hadn't called her, the agency had called me. Now she was getting pretty hysterical, insisting that I had called her. Outright, calling me a liar. Again, I have a witness who heard the phone rang and saw me answer it. I am not going mad. It seems a pretty stupid thing to try to deny - phone records can instantly show who called whom, when. I'm starting to wonder if this woman has some paranoia issues, or perhaps has been drinking on the job. It was that kind of crazy vibe.

Finally I asked to speak to her manager and was transferred to a much more reasonable-sounding person. He sounded quite surprised when I told him some of the things Ms DC had said to me. He said he understood my frustration and that he believed me that Optus had cancelled the debt, but that it would remain in their system until Optus contacted them to inform of this. (I'm still wondering how Ms DC had that information to give me last week if it wasn't in their system. No explanation was ever offered for that.) Both this manager and I were confident that the Optus case manager would sort that out in the near future. Which left the question - why did someone ring me this afternoon, just to put me on to Ms DC for a twenty-minute lecture on the ways I could supply this proof that I apparently had to provide to the agency? Hmm. No answer to that either.

Not much fun, going through all that. I'm sure we'd all agree with that. Spending hours on hold to various bureaucratic bodies, listening to the inane beeping that passes as 'hold music', getting shuffled around from one department or another, typing in codes when prompted - aargh. It's such a common experience in the modern world - apparently as unavoidable as death and taxes. I remember my mother used to get prepared whenever she had to call the Child Support Agency. This was back in the days when telephones were still attached to walls. She would sit us down in front of a full feature-length video movie on the TV and sequester herself in her bedroom with the second phone, a plate of snacks, a packet of cigarettes and a bucket of coffee. Now that is the attitude one needs to get through a phone line queue! This went on about once a month or so, for a few years, when the Government finally started deducting those court-ordered maintenance payments that my father was refusing to pay directly from his tax return and salary. So I was prepared, when I grew up and went out into the world and had to make my own phone calls. I knew how to approach a phone line queue with patience, and to not take out my problems on the poor person who is just answering the phone, and wasn't actually personally responsible for all that money that's disappeared out of your account, or whatever.

My downfall is, as I have mentioned, anything to do with electronic, technological devices, and I'm afraid that arguments with telecommunications companies fall into that category. Somehow, the arbitrary power a telephone company has to disrupt my finances freaks me out even more than other kinds of services. Perhaps it's something about the intangible nature of telecommunications - just a guess, I really don't know why. I just can't cope with shit like this. I know it shouldn't get to me so much, and I don't know why, but it does. After both half-day sessions of phone calls, I was absolutely distraught and cried for hours. I really feel like I can't deal with this. I have spent the last week seriously considering whether to just cut off all the phones and the internet just to be sure that I NEVER have to go through this again. And I mean seriously. I have been mentally going through all the people I keep in touch with by phone, and considering letting everyone know I'm only doing snail mail. I would have to give up this blog, and all the blogs I love to follow, and so many things that I love. I searched within myself, and found that yes, I could do that, be an off-the-grid Luddite and incur the frustrations of all the people who want to call and email me, if only I could be spared the venomous accusations and threats of people like Ms DC and their faceless automatic systems. The price of all these luxuries is too high, if people can just send me threatening letters for no reason whenever they feel like it. That's how much I feel traumatised by these kinds of experiences.

I hit a wall, however, when it came to the issue of health management. Mr CJ needs to have a phone to receive medical appointments. If I didn't have a phone for him to call me on if there was ever a problem, I wouldn't be able to leave him alone at all, and then would hardly be able to leave the house at all. If there is an emergency, I have to be able to call for help, or, realistically, it could seriously increase the chances of either Mr CJ or me having an untimely death. Things really are that drastic when you are living with serious health problems. I realised that I am trapped, held in bondage to capricious corporations whose computers can just spit out any numbers they like and put one's life - or at least one's credit rating - into turmoil. I seriously considered suicide - for the first time in quite a while. If I can't live without telephones, well then, I'd rather not live at all. That might sound drastic, but that's the nature of a phobia - unnecessarily drastic.

This is the fourth time in my life, with the third telco company, that I have had an issue get to this point. In each case, the fault was with the telephone company mistakenly assigning me a debt I did not actually owe. Each case was a matter of an amount of less than $200. All these cases were resolved in my favour, but not without a reasonable dose of agony, panic and tears along the way. In the case of debt collectors, however, I suspend the consideration that they might be a just an innocent bystander who happens to be answering the phone. These people know what the company they are working for is doing. They know that contact has begun with a letter that uses threatening, intimidating language to express its purpose, and if they are answering the number given on that letter, they are putting themselves in a position of responsibility for the distress it is causing me. These individuals who call me, demanding money, don't actually, personally, have any proof that the alleged debtor has any legal debt at all. So I let them have it and tell them exactly what I think of them. Apparently it's been quite entertaining around the Maroon Household lately, overhearing Lady Demelza muster all her prowess of the English language to deliver the most painfully, pompously offended diatribe possible without actually resorting to swearing.

My next-door neighbour happened to be an over-hearer, and she said that she was impressed that I was taking the time and energy to argue the point, because most people would just pay the debt, what with it being not too great an amount, rather than go through the stress of taking the issue to its conclusion. My mind boggles when I imagine how much money the telco companies are making through all these 'little mistakes'.

One debt collector, a few years ago, once he had been informed by Telstra that the relevant debt was indeed a mistake and that I didn't have to pay it, said to me, 'I'm sorry, I didn't know.' I replied, 'yes, and you didn't care, did you?' All that time he was being so demanding and insisting and intimidating toward me, he had never bothered to take any steps to be sure that I actually was a guilty party before threatening legal proceedings, in a direct reversal of the supposed 'innocent until proven guilty' philosophy of our society's legal system. Seeing as it was later established that I had never incurred a debt in the first place, the actions taken by the debt collectors amount to nothing more than unjust accusations and harassment - actions that are punishable by law, if people who aren't employed by debt collectors commit them. He just took instructions from his computer screens and pleaded the old excuse of war criminals everywhere - I'm just doing my job.

I think that if you are going to take a job that involves harassing innocent people who have been mistakenly accused of a debt, that is your responsibility, and you are going to hear exactly what I think of you.

I ended up suggesting to Ms DC that there was hope for her yet, she didn't have to continue degrading herself in such a reprehensible occupation. Perhaps she could find a more morally respectable position elsewhere - I understand that there's always plenty of work available in the adult entertainment industry.


  1. I would make a complaint to the ACCC.

  2. Aha! So that's the place to go! Thanks Lisa, I'll keep that in mind for next time. How depressing that I am already assuming there is likely to be a 'next time' one day. However, I am pleased to report that this particular issue was all sorted by the time that Optus case manager got to work on Monday morning, and I'm back to loving my mobile technology.