T-Mobile doesn’t want my money.

(A brief coda to this story can be found here.)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to win a Nexus One through a Twitter contest run by whatthetrend. Unfortunately, the phone was incompatible with my previous network. I ended up joining the phone nerd flock and going with the most popular option of the era: signing up for an all-inclusive T-Mobile smartphone bundle, then requesting some esoteric modifications over the phone, resulting in a cheaper plan not normally offered to consumers.

I felt pretty silly a few months later when I realized that even when I did leave home I was rarely far from a wireless connection. I didn’t feel like throwing any more money down the drain, so I decided to switch to T-Mobile’s FlexAccount (prepaid) system. After a relatively pleasant phone call, their representative fulfilled my request. I answered some questions about why I had chosen to cancel and went on my way.



Except no.

The close of that conversation brought the start of my problems. The Nexus One could be bundled with T-Mobile service when purchased through Google, yet it remained an enigma in my every interaction with the corporation. Portions of their website failed because they couldn’t identify my phone, and their representatives knew nothing of it. My Frankensteinian plan was likewise a mystery. Thanks to some combination of unusual circumstances and representative error, my account was set to suspended.

Their billing system ripped apart under the strain, and the yawning infinity between database rows swallowed my T-Mobile account.

I expected that my data plan would continue to work until the next billing cycle, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was perhaps a week or two after I switched over to FlexAccount that I realized that my phone was still connecting to T-Mobile’s 3G network. Naive to cell phone infrastructure, I figured that my phone was awaiting some kind of synchronization to revoke privileges, or that my cancellation was in a queue somewhere.

My FlexAccount worked as expected. Calls and texts reduced my account balance, and if I drained it empty I’d receive an angry beep about thirty seconds before my call was terminated. (I didn’t opt for automatic refills, so this happened very often. Sorry, Mom!) I used the service for a few months before it sunk in that, despite only purchasing about $15 worth of text/voice refills per month, I was still receiving unlimited 3G service.

I halfheartedly tried to cancel the not-actually-cancelled plan, but because my account was suspended, I couldn’t make any changes to it. Since I could still use my FlexAccount for calls and voice, it was pretty easy to not make a big deal out of it. (Would you go out of your way to stop a company from providing services you weren’t paying for?)

About a year and a half later I received an unexpected text from T-Mobile. Had they found out about their billing problem? Was I in trouble for not being more aggressive in getting my account cancelled? Was I going to get a thousand-dollar phone bill out of the blue?

Of course not. I had been trapped in limbo for so long that the plan I had signed up with was no longer being offered. They were simply trying to migrate users to new plans without service interruptions (i.e., make people pay more money for the same thing). I decided to be charitable and go with it, even knowing that I’d probably lose access to the unlimited stream of data.

But it didn’t go.

I called T-Mobile customer support and explained that I couldn’t change my account through the T-Mobile site. Unfortunately, making changes over the phone requires an account PIN. I had thrown it away two years ago under the impression that it was a one-time activation code… and the site didn’t permit retrieving PINs for suspended accounts. The only option left was to go into a T-Mobile store and explain the situation, and I was in graduate school at the time, so that was a non-starter.

I didn’t consider my phone service again until I got a job in New York City. Since I’d be more mobile and have more income, it actually made sense to have a data plan. Of course, I already had the best one money couldn’t buy. Yet out of some combination of honesty, fear of reprisal, and fetishism for order I decided to try paying T-Mobile for my data service again.

This was a terrible idea and I regret it immensely.

I did some research on what plan I wanted, then budgeted an hour for a visit to a T-Mobile store. It took some hoop-jumping, but the sales associates were able to cancel my old number. Unfortunately, technical errors prevented them from activating the plan that I wanted, and I needed a phone that night. After about an hour and a half in the store, I went with the interim solution they proposed: pay for a month of a different plan for now, start the number port process, and at my convenience call customer support to have my plan changed after explaining the situation.

(Side note: apparently saying ‘I’m getting 3G service without paying for it’ makes them think you are just very confused about the details of your plan. It took about half an hour for them to realize otherwise.)

The sales associates assured me that they had done this before without incident, and I’m inclined to believe them. Naturally, though, there was an incident in my case. After several calls to T-Mobile support I had it made quite clear to me that ”New activations only. Available exclusively in-store at Walmart, on Walmart.com, and T-Mobile.com.” actually means “Available exclusively in-store at Walmart and on Walmart.com, with activations permitted on T-Mobile.com”. I accepted defeat and resigned myself to paying noticeably more money for a noticeably worse plan.

Shortly after that sequence of calls concluded I received a text message informing me that the change I requested had been completed. It didn’t say which change, or where I should look for more information, but I assumed it was the number port going through. My phone still listed my temporary number, but figuring that it might take a while or only show up after a restart, I moved on to other tasks.

In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

It took a few days to piece together what had happened. My verbosity had once again been my downfall. The representative had looked at my account and noticed that I had a pending number transfer. I acknowledged that I wanted the transfer to proceed, but I stated that it was a ‘lower priority’ since I wanted to focus on getting my desired plan. The ‘requested change’ that I was later informed of was her canceling the transfer request based on that statement.

I returned to the T-Mobile store the next time I got a chance. It was quickly confirmed that the transfer request had indeed been cancelled at my ‘request’. It takes a lot to make me snap at someone, but I definitely could have been much more polite to the sales associate as I asked him to start the porting process again. I don’t believe in karma, but when he handed me a printed sheet of paper with a cryptic error message about why my number couldn’t be ported it really made me feel like someone was out there fucking with me.

He couldn’t do anything about the error, of course – I’d have to call customer support. Again. With that humbling reminder that he was nearly as powerless against T-Mobile as I was, I thanked him as kindly as I could muster and went home to call customer support.

Who reminded me that without my PIN I couldn’t make any changes over the phone. Fuck.

I went to another T-Mobile store near my new residence. I probably came across quite poorly as I tried to explain the situation in as few words as possible, but my brusque manner couldn’t drive away all trace of human empathy. She had a slight expression of regret or reluctance as she turned to give me the good news: even with my driver’s license, she couldn’t access my PIN.


Despair clouded my mind for a few moments, but a fragment of a half-remembered support call came to the surface. The representative had suggested that I visit a store so that a representative could call customer support, explain the situation, and verify my identity. But was that right? They had been wrong before.

It was at least worth a try. I explained this last possibility and the representative dialed customer support. She informed them that a customer was at the store, right now, and needed to retrieve their PIN. A pause – they had asked her to confirm that I was actually at the store, right now. She did. Another pause, longer.

Then – numbers, glorious numbers! Numbers spoken so fast that I couldn’t parse them on the first pass. I scrambled for my pen and took them down on the second go. I asked for them a third time to confirm what I’d written, then practically skipped home to call customer support to initiate the transfer.

It completed within 24 hours. My number was free. I had escaped phone limbo.

I admit that my exuberance comes off as silly. But at this point, I had been without my old phone number for a few weeks, and I’d spent probably a dozen hours reading support articles, calling customer support, and visiting T-Mobile stores.

And all this had started because I tried to do what felt right.

I suspect that my old account, first suspended and then dead-but-dreaming, will outlive me. But whatever vestiges live on in T-Mobile’s servers, they won’t trouble my everyday life. I return to it having learned these lessons which I share with you now:

  • Being an honest person fucking sucks.
  • T-Mobile customer support is nightmare dimension of phone cable webs tracing unspeakable geometries. Your call is answered by bloated help-spiders covered in the silent faces of crying children. They speak with voices stolen from the dead, and you must not speak to them, for each moment you spend on the line brings our worlds ever so slightly closer.
  • None of the T-Mobile support number options lead to a real person. If you want one, say ‘representative’ several times in a row. Your assigned help-spider will pretend not to understand you (how fucked up is that?), but they must obey you if you are insistent enough.
  • T-Mobile store employees have been universally pleasant, but inconsistently helpful. In every case where they weren’t able to help me with my problems, it was T-Mobile corporate’s fault. I suspect that they are not, in fact, a very stealthy kind of spider demon.
  • T-Mobile’s service is actually really great, at least in Connecticut and New York, and their plans are reasonably priced.

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