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Verizon paying a price for bill befuddlement

Mary Lockhart of Brandon holds a receipt she got after giving up on Verizon FiOS. Verizon customers not only are abandoning the FiOS service, they’re complaining to state officials. Verizon says change is on the way.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

Mary Lockhart of Brandon holds a receipt she got after giving up on Verizon FiOS. Verizon customers not only are abandoning the FiOS service, they’re complaining to state officials. Verizon says change is on the way.

Mary Lockhart leafed through sheet after sheet of her six-page Verizon FiOS bills, shaking her head.

"I never really did understand it," she confessed.

Lockhart finally gave up trying last month, and returned to her old company, Bright House Networks, which is trying to lure prodigal customers with promises of simple bills without the "hidden fees." Not to be outdone, and reacting to some of the discontent, Verizon is about to roll out its own simplified, easy-to-read bill.

"Changes are coming," said Bob Elek, a Verizon spokesman. "And I think it will really be something our customers will really appreciate."

As the cable wars continue to ratchet up, Bright House has been aggressively courting Verizon FiOS malcontents through its "Asterisk" ad campaign, which accuses its rival of pricey small print and sneaky hidden fees. Bright House has also quietly begun offering to pony up the $175 early-termination fee to get disaffected Verizon customers out of their contracts.

Joe Durkin, a spokesman for Bright House Networks, wouldn't detail the perks that the company is offering new customers, or say how many customers have returned from FiOS, except to say that response has been "astounding."

Durkin said, "They come to realize, you know, the grass is no greener on the other side."

Elek, however, said Bright House's new inducements show just how successful FiOS has been in encroaching on Bright House territory.

• • •

The simplified bill will come too late for Lockhart. She already has a new one-page bill — from Bright House.

Lockhart spent more than a year with FiOS. Of the 14 months she was with Verizon, she estimated that they got her bill right only five times.

"It's just been frustration," Lockhart said, leafing through a sheaf of bills at her Brandon home.

Lockhart signed up for a plan that cost $99.95 a month. With taxes and fees, she expected to pay about $130 a month. Instead, her first bill in July 2007 came to $282. The next month: $166. She called Verizon and received a credit, and the bill for her third month fell to $19.06.

After five months of bills around $130, her bills started inching up again, and in August she received a bill for $162.

"That's when I said I'd had enough," Lockhart said. Bright House offered her a year of free HBO, plus the same television, phone and internet services she received from Verizon. Bright House connected her new service in mid September, and she just received her first bill: $108.59.

Frustrated customers like Lockhart have reached out to Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. So far this year, the agency has received 48 complaints about Verizon's cable services. More than a third of the complaints were about billing disputes.

Claire Jolly of Land O'Lakes is one of the disaffected customers who called the state for help because her bills never seemed right. She'd consider switching back to Bright House, but said she doesn't want to pay the early-termination fee.

"I've been fighting with Verizon for I don't know how long," Jolly said. She likes the service, but is sick of having to call the company every month to get her bill fixed.

Ronald Brown, too, got sick of calling. He switched from Bright House after a Verizon salesman knocked on his door promising a free digital camera. That was in February. He has since had to call about incorrect bills. He never received the camera. Brown said he called at least 20 times, at one point spending two hours on hold for a supervisor.

Verizon finally told him in August that he wasn't eligible for the camera, and offered him a $200 credit instead. When the credit didn't come thought, Brown complained to the state. He received the credit, but not the camera.

• • •

Elek indicated that complaints to the state are relatively few given that Verizon's customer service center in Tampa receives about 230,000 calls a month. Verizon has also made improvements by adding staff at its call center, extending service hours and enhancing training.

These sorts of problems plagued the early cable industry, too, said Robert Rosenberg, president of Insight Research Corp., a New Jersey telecommunications industry analyst. He recalled the prototypical "cable guy."

"They were the butt of a million jokes until the mid 1990s," he pointed out. Verizon, too, may be suffering some growing pains, but the company will learn from the early mistakes, he predicted.

"Give it six months," Rosenberg said. "It will work itself out. It always does."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

Mary Lockhart's confusing Verizon FiOS bills

Mary Lockhart had Verizon FiOS for a year, and said her bills were rarely the same, involved six incomprehensible pages, and often had mistakes or added charges the company didn't disclose. She expected a monthly bill of $130, but during her 14 months with Verizon, she estimated that her bill was correct just five times. Frustrated, she switched back to Bright House Networks last month.

• July 2007: $282.51
(Lockhart's first FiOS bill)

• August 2007: $166.36

• Sept 2007: $19.06
(Verizon credited Lockhart $111 due to complaints)

• Oct. 2007: $131.57

• Nov. 2007: $132.15

• Dec. 2007: $129.24

• Jan. 2008: $131.45

• Feb. 2008: $131.95

• March 2008: $142.65

• April 2008: $143.80

• May 2008: $143.80

• June 2008: $159.56
(Verizon added HBO)

• July 2008: $121.99
(Verizon credited $40
due to complaints)

• August 2008: $162.34

• Sept. 2008: $108.59
(Lockhart's first bill with Bright House after switching service. The company also gave her a free year of
HBO.)

Verizon paying a price for bill befuddlement 10/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 10:07am]
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