A cacophony of woe over indecipherable AT&T bill

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David Lazarus

“They give you one price, and then they charge you another,” said Charmian CarrIn, who played the eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, in “The Sound of Music.” (Jenna Schoenefeld / May 19, 2014)

In "The Sound of Music," Charmian Carr played the eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, the one who sings "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

Carr is now 71 and she's going on about AT&T.

"I just don't understand their billing," she told me, exasperated. "They give you one price, and then they charge you another."

Let me just say right here that when I get a call out of the blue from a cast member of "The Sound of Music," I jump to attention. I'm a sucker for classic movie musicals.

Moreover, I receive complaints almost every day from consumers who say their phone, cable and satellite bills are too darn hard to decipher.

Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group, said it appears that telecom companies go out of their way to make it difficult for customers to know what they're paying for.

"Consumers are less likely to challenge a fee or cancel an optional service if they don't understand their options," she said.

Carr had been getting her phone and Internet service from AT&T and her TV from DirecTV. She saw an ad for AT&T's broadband U-verse service that bundled everything together for a lower total price, so she gave the company a call.

"They told me it would be $172 a month for phone, Internet and TV," Carr said. "I asked them three times to confirm that price, and three times they said it would be $172 a month."

So "My Favorite Things" wasn't her first thought when an estimated bill arrived for her first month of U-verse.

It showed that Carr would receive $71 in "discounts/promotions," but would still face $190 in monthly recurring charges, plus another $16.33 in "one-time charges/credits."

Thus, the estimate said, her first U-verse bill would be for $206.33, which was 20% higher than what she'd been quoted.

Also, that $206.33 figure was "exclusive of standard taxes/fees," which of course would raise the monthly cost even higher. The estimated bill didn't say how much those standard taxes and fees would be.

Before I get to AT&T's response, let's look at what a customer is up against. In Carr's case, she had to grapple with a math-quiz worth of numbers in trying to navigate AT&T's itemized breakdown of charges.

I won't waste space with all 41 line items on the bill estimate, some adding to the monthly cost, others subtracting from it. Anyone would be bamboozled by all the accounting legerdemain.

What jumped out for me was the estimate's combined $20.93 in monthly "surcharges and other fees" for U-verse phone and TV service, plus another $44.25 in combined "government fees and taxes."

What surcharges? What other fees? What government fees and taxes?

You can go to AT&T's website, where you'll find a page titled "Understanding Your U-verse Bill." But it offers no detailed information on surcharges, fees and taxes.

In Carr's case, she was left to simply trust AT&T that more than a quarter of her estimated bill reflected legitimate costs and wasn't some sort of corporate money grab.

I shared the bill estimate with Georgia Taylor, an AT&T spokeswoman, who acknowledged that she could "see how this would be overwhelming for some people."

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