More than 10,000 CenturyLink customers in Oregon were dinged in the past month with a $5 late fee for not paying a 56-cent federal tax that was not even posted on their bills. Now the giant telecom company has pledged to fix the "huge billing error," by crediting customers on following bills.
Customers hit with the late fee before Nov. 14 will receive a credit on their December statements; if it happened after that date, the credit will be on the January statements, said CenturyLink spokeswoman Heather Koch in Bend.
One customer, George Thomas of Jacksonville, complained that the corporation, which sells him phone, Internet and DIRECTV service, has collected a lot of money and is making interest on it. That, too, should be credited to customers, he said.
Koch said CenturyLink, the third-largest telecom network in the country, does not actually have the funds, which total about $50,000. It resides in their "billing system network" and will balance out soon.
The "Federal Universal Service Fund" collects 56 cents from Thomas monthly, but it didn't appear on his November bill, so he didn't pay it.
The universal service fund is a fee created by the Federal Communications Commission to meet the goals set by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The funds are intended to ensure that public services, such as hospitals and schools, have access to up-to-date telecommunications services.
When Thomas discovered the error on his bill, he called the company, proposing that he just wouldn't pay the late fee in December, but he was told that if he skipped it, he would get yet another late fee, so CenturyLink asked him to pay it and they would credit him later.
"They're a big company with lots of smart people, and you'd think they could get their computers not to do this," said Thomas. "Anyway, nowadays, I'm always suspicious of the big corporations. They said it would take two or three months, and they try to make it sound like it's our fault. Their public relations is very poor."
Koch agreed that the error was a "huge" one. But she said CenturyLink, headquartered in Louisiana and covering most of the Western and Central U.S., is very customer focused.
"That's our values and morals, and it won't take a couple months to fix this; we are working on our network, doing it immediately, right now," Koch said.
Informed that he would be receiving the refund, Thomas said, "The issue isn't the $5 so much as it's that any corporation can hold large amounts of our money hostage, say it's a computer glitch, and make a lot of profit."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.