• A Case of Attempted Extortion

    The last Saturday of February, the 29th, was of course an extra day, but that was no good reason for wasting half of it – yet, sadly, that is how it turned out.

    The day started off badly with the arrival of a letter from a major, internationally owned, service provider whose customer we had been for several years. The letter was unsigned and began by asserting, quite incorrectly, that “we have contacted you several times about your unpaid account of $308,74” – this was, in fact, the first communication we had received from them on the subject.

    The letter then proceeded to threaten that, if the $308.74 was not paid immediately, we would be faced with legal action and we would, at the least, be referred to a debt collection agency which would add to our costs and jeopardise our chances of getting credit in the future.

    I was so concerned that I immediately phoned the number provided for what was laughingly described as their customer service department. I then entered a nightmarish – not to say Kafkaesque – world of recorded voices, constant requests that I should choose to press one or another number, none of which seemed to be relevant to my inquiry, long minutes of recorded music while I waited to speak to someone – anyone – and then barely comprehensible conversations with people who had no knowledge of what my inquiry was about and in any case lacked any competence to deal with it.

    I should make it clear that my gripe is not with those I spoke to, who were on the whole courteous and helpful.

    My inquiry was simple enough. I wanted to know what the $308.74 represented and how it had been incurred – we had in fact terminated our contract with the provider some months earlier. It took several hours of increasing frustration on my part before we reached an agreement that they would e-mail me with details of how the supposed debt of $308.74 had arisen.

    When the e-mail duly arrived, however, it did no more than state that the $308.74 was owing. To cut this long story short, I was then able to check my bank account and to show that I had paid, at the time of closing the account with the provider in November, a sum of over $300 which had then been outstanding.

    My attempt to communicate this information by e-mail to the “customer service department” was met with the response that I had e-mailed a “no-reply” address. In the e-mail, I had mentioned my legal qualifications, said that if the matter was not resolved satisfactorily “forthwith”, I would “pursue my own remedies” for what seemed to be attempted extortion and harassment, and recommended that they show the correspondence “to their superiors”.

    The e-mail, whether received or not, seems to have been read. I was then telephoned with an assurance that the outstanding amount had ben “waived” and that our account had been closed. So ended a morning of unalloyed frustration, wasted nervous energy and emotional exhaustion. I had not only wasted a whole morning but had also suffered a most unpleasant experience.

    My reason for reporting this unhappy episode is that, as my wife and I reflected, we are both of advanced years, and ill-equipped to deal with such unfamiliar issues. As it happens, my legal background and occasional experience of dealing with stroppy people meant that I was able to withstand the attempt to bully us into paying a large sum that we did not owe.

    Other elderly people my not have had my defences available. And, as the management of their affairs – and particularly financial affairs – becomes increasingly something done online, they are unlikely to have the technical skills needed to do so. And that is to say nothing of the scammers whose efforts to con people out of their savings have recently been highlighted.

    There is, as far as I know, no ombudsman or industry watchdog available to consumers when they run into the kind of issue that faced us. Service providers, particularly when they are large International companies, may calculate that such tactics will pay off in the end. I urge customers, particularly elderly ones, to stand up for themselves.

    Bryan Gould
    8 February 2020