Verizon refused to help police locate unconscious man unless they paid his phone bill

Nancy Schaar at the Times Reporter:

A 62-year-old Carrollton area man was found unconscious and unresponsive Thursday morning during an intense search overnight by Carroll County sheriff deputies, an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper and the patrol’s airplane. [Sheriff] Williams said he attempted to use the man’s cell phone signal to locate him, but the man was behind on his phone bill and the Verizon operator refused to connect the signal unless the sheriff’s department agreed to pay the overdue bill. After some disagreement, Williams agreed to pay $20 on the phone bill in order to find the man.

Though this case is from a while ago—operators are now made available to assist emergency services—it got me thinking about what makes carriers and telcos such horrible companies to deal with once you're a customer. It's because accepting a long term cellular contract is a lot like going a couple of grand in debt.

As a result, their corporate culture gravitates toward that of a collection agency. It's inevitable, even if they try to avoid it, because that's the economic bottom line of the customer-facing part of their business. If an operator is actually having to talk to you, you must be a deadbeat or some other kind of problem.

Verizon, when asked by police to find a cellphone, suffered from a perverse blind spot: it could not see beyond the fact that the cellphone's owner owed it money.

Unconscious Carroll man found after 11-hour search [Times Reporter via Reddit]


      1.  This wasn’t always the case. IIRC, in the early days of cell phone competition a carrier in Los Angeles refused to route a 911 call from a another carrier’s customer. This left the caller helpless. I believe this had to remedied by legislation.
        I can’t find any reference to it right now, but, like I said this was early in the history of cell phones, and therefor early or pre-internet.

  1. The comments over at reddit are stacked with “I used to work for Verizon and they are angelic kitten-snugglers and the cops were totally in the wrong and people always try to pretend to have emergencies to get reconnected” comments.

    I was surprised until I noticed how many of them are 1-pointers, burner accounts. They’ll be here soon, I’m sure.

    I guess Verizon’s PR is quite a bit more responsive than their customer service.

  2. My contract with 3 phones on it is up soon. Then I go to Pay as you go phones.   I need to make sure I speak to a human and increase their costs  every time I have a question or need to pay my bill.
    Then if they try their additional $2 fee I can quit early for breach.

  3. Sounds like they didn’t call the law enforcement relations division, but regular customer service. That fuck up is on the part of the law enforcement not calling the department that is made available to them.

    1.  Maybe, but that makes me ask why the Verizon rep didn’t tell them about the law enforcement relations division and/or offer to transfer them over.

      1. Probably because it’s not in the script. 

        However, this should have been escalated.

    2. In a company the size of Verizon, the inability of someone who is not privy to the details of the organization to call exactly the right department is rarely the fault of the outside person. 

      1. Yeah, it sucks being a multi-billion dollar corporation, willing to put dollars before lives. When the lowly foot-soldiers have absorbed their cut-throat attitude (instead of helping emergency services?)… well, it kinda speaks volumes about Corporate Amurrka, don’t it?
        Someone needs to sue their pants off.

    3. That really speaks to the corporate citizenship, doesn’t it? 
      The adzehole service rep didn’t take ownership at all, except to delay emergency services.
      Classic “dollars before lives” attitude. Hope they get their pants sued off.

      1. Unfortunately I suspect that the likely outcome of a lawsuit in this case would be:
        1) Service rep gets fired for instigating lawsuit, subsequently starves or goes on public assistance (or both);
        2) Verizon pays a fine which approximates to a slap on the wrist so light it might just as well be a kiss.

        And that’s only if Verizon loses.

  4. This is what happens when  the front-line people are given absolutely no latitude.  Someone probably made it a policy that under no circumstances were they to activate a phone if the account was behind.  They may have even changed whatever control software so that it wouldn’t allow the phone to be activated until the account was current.  Or maybe they just trained the phone support people to never ever under any circumstances deviate from the script, under penalty of losing their job.

    This is the problem with the TSA at airports, too.

  5. “It’s because accepting a long term cellular contract is a lot like going a couple of grand in debt.”

    It’s more than “a lot like” it’s “exactly like”.  You are buying a $600-800 phone. Verizon (or AT&T) paid for the phone and now you owe them.  And they want another $50 a month for the phone service.  Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

    1. In part, because the cell companies go a great deal out of their way to hide this fact. I note that none of them breaks out their bill by “cellular service” and “handset financing.”

    2. Isn’t this your choice though? Don’t know what it’s like in the US but around here you can get an Android phone for $15/month on a two-year contract including unlimited data and more minutes than you could ever use. No up-front cost for the phone. So that would be, what, a good $300 over 2 years?
      Now if you want the latest and greatest or an iPhone for the bling factor, prepare to get screwed. Still ultimately your choice.

      1. Here, $15/mo won’t even get you the voice plan. Then you have to get the data plan on top of that, which $15/mo might get you… for a 200 MiB/mo plan. Unlimited is almost dead, and you’re looking at $30/mo+ to get it.

        And, it’s usually the worst garbage Android phones that get no support that are no upfront cost.

        1. So… why do you need the latest Android phone instead of, say, a Samsung Galaxy Y or something similar? Works just fine. It’s all in your head, seriously. You can’t blame the carriers if you demand the latest model.

          (I usually use T-Mobile prepaid in the US; no contract, works as advertised, doesn’t come with an expensive electronic penis extension though.)

          1. The latest model isn’t actually what you need.

            The trick is, this year’s mid-range model won’t be useful next year. Last year’s high-end model, with similar specs, will, because it tends to be better supported both by the manufacturers and the aftermarket.

          2. Well, speak for yourself. I use a Nokia 6070 most of the time which Wikipedia tells me is 6 years old. Holds a charge for more than a week! Between that, a cheap-ass Android phone and an iPod touch (again, cheap) I’m totally covered.

            It’s all about your expectations. Don’t blame others for your expensive habits.

          3. What they don’t tell you is that the cheapest Android phones are often near-unusable, or at least incredibly frustrating to use, for anything beyond what you could do with a non-smartphone (and it’s probably easier to do those things on a non-smartphone). 

            That’s fine for many people, and probably more than they need. I agree with you in that people have stupid expectations and pay for more than they need.

            But if you do need (or just want) to regularly do more with your phone, you have to go at least up to something mid-range (or last year’s top model which after a year is mid-range).

          4. That’s not what he’s saying. You must not have a grasp on all the handshaking that goes on with old software vs. new hardware. I just had to spend about $100 to upgrade from XP to Windows 7  because my laptop couldn’t update, most of it’s functions slowly dissolved.  Microsoft has tried to write all the code in between, to marry  the old with the new, but it’s a daunting task. But your right too, people want the newest NOT- PROVEN- TO -FUNCTION- FLAWLESSLY model. Large corporations have successfully brainwashed consumers into equating NEWER=BETTER PERFORMING. 

            Now take a look at my 2003 Dodge Durango’s paint job compared to all of  Dodge’s  pre 1990  models. 

        2. Yep, $15 will get you a parked rate, and the longer your phone is parked, your contract is extended. 

    3. I hated the whole contract thing, and got on the Koodo Telus plan (here in BC)
      the phone I got was an LG500. No contract,  $25 per month, & $5 for 25mb data (which is plenty for me) at home its wifi, and the phone didn’t cost me nothing.  (It’s on the tab plan $150 and monthly that is reduced by $5, so if I want to quit, all I have to pay is what is remaining on the tab) I’ve had it for over a year and never went over $35.

      1. Have a look at Wind. I’m paying the same but I get unlimited everything with a Nexus S (a while ago).

        1. Wind’s plan is great until you leave the city limits of only a handful of large Canadian cities that they serve, then it’s eye-wateringly expensive.

          1. Yep, but isn’t that how it should be? I don’t need my phone to work out in the wilderness, and I’d rather not pay for the towers out there.

            They’re coverage is quite a bit beyond the city limits. Here in Vancouver it extends well past even the exurbs, though I’m not sure about other elsewhere.

    4. Actually, something like an iPhone is in the $300 range.

      In Japan, service runs you like $20 a month. Wake up, sheeple!

      1. The latest iPhone (Softbank only, yeah!) or HTC phone isn’t cheap in Japan, either. Very similar to other places. Japan isn’t the best example of consumer-friendly carriers; many phones don’t even come with a user-accessible SIM card equivalent (no GSM in Japan) so no switching carriers for you! Even though that’s changed a bit with the advent of the iPhone; that and consumer demand for Android phones is the best thing that could have happened to Japan’s totally closed and proprietary cell phone landscape. Thank you, Apple!

    5. The company can change the terms of their contract terms with YOU, it’s in the contract. But YOU can’t change the contract terms, without a penalty, with them. “At a loss” is subjective, any company can add any value they like on their hardware, that’s been a subject here on BB. They can also make bogus claims about connectivity, service quality and so forth. People don’t seem to remember that ALL advertising claims for a product are ALWAYS based on a ‘best case scenario’.

  6.  If the cops would have just told Verizon he was a terrorism suspect, they would have turned his phone on, tracked him, handed over a log of all txt and voice messages, tapped his phone, and possibly used satellites to take pictures of him from space.

    1. That is exactly what I was thinking. How twisted is our society? The government can harvest all sorts of information from wireless carriers based on the vague threat of terrorism. Here we have a case where an individual could be in immediate danger, but law enforcement was stonewalled by the carrier. Are our priorities really that skewed?

  7. >Verizon operator refused to connect the signal

    this makes no sense, you dont need to “connect the signal” (WTF does that mean? unfreezeing blocked account?), the phone itself is ALWAYS logging into the cell towers to say “hi Im me and Im here, what is your signal strenght”. You can even track a phone with no simcard/contract.
    Sounds like cops called Sales department.

    1. Probably refused to provide location assistance, and just used that incorrect phrase? Despicable either way.

      1. Got a friend that’s spent time as a call center drone. They literally Can Not deviate from script. Ever. Otherwise they’re fired. It’s all about keeping resolution times and repeat calls down. Stats deviate too much (and it’s not even by that great a percentage, say you have a bad week. You’re given the next week or two then you’re gone. Why should they be tolerant or understanding of the fact you might not have other job options? They can always hire some other poor schmuck.

        1. This is essentially why I quit working for Comcast’s ISP many years back.  ‘Fuck getting the customer taken care of, stick to a script or else!’  mentality wore me thinner than a politician’s integrity.

          I’d rather whore myself out that be a phone jockey again.

        2. Thing is, I can’t really fault them for the “stick to the script”-mantra.   Yes, it can be annoying to the customer in seemingly obvious cases, but sometimes they are just that: Seemingly. 

          I had to force myself to not 2nd-guess the script a couple of times and in some cases it was the correct thing to to: Some option I didn’t know about and didn’t find on the net and *zing* my stuff worked again. 

        3. Thing is, I can’t really fault them for the “stick to the script”-mantra.   Yes, it can be annoying to the customer in seemingly obvious cases, but sometimes they are just that: Seemingly. 

          I had to force myself to not 2nd-guess the script a couple of times and in some cases it was the correct thing to to: Some option I didn’t know about and didn’t find on the net and *zing* my stuff worked again. 

    2. (Worked for Sprint here)

      We put our delinquent phones first into minimal function mode, usually receiving calls, not making. 

      Anyway, what if the guys phone wasn’t on? So the operator KNEW  the phone was on, or wouldn’t have asked for the payment, because then they wouldn’t have been able to keep their end of the bargain. So the operator HAD to see where the phone was located first, it was the information they held hostage. And some computerized ‘scripts’ will not allow any employee pass a certain point, especially if money is owed. This operator may not have been able to do anything, seriously, like the program freezes, flashing DELINQUENT ACCOUNT.  I think the police officer was talking to the billing department, not regular customer service.

  8. Anyone remember a hijacking many years ago with iconic photo of pilot handing his credit card out cockpit window? The local airport (Middle East I believe) wouldnt let him refuel and take off unless someone paid for fuel. Hijacker was right behind him pointing gun at him.  Always wondered if he disputed the charge…:)

    1. The Flight Attendant who gave up her card was paid back.
      She was also credited with saving the lives of many of the passengers by putting herself in harms way by hiding passports.
      Back when Flight attendants weren’t our “front line” against terrorism and passengers might have been seen as something more than revenue cattle.

  9. I promised myself not to read any more of Rob’s alarmist product/service bashing articles anymore, but being I’m a Verizon customer and use to be an employee, I figured I’d see what he had to say.

    It’s interesting you picked a 3+ year old story that has long since had a resolution beyond “the guy was found” in order to make the comment “…it got me thinking about what makes carriers and telcos such horrible companies to deal with once you’re a customer. It’s because accepting a long term cellular contract is a lot like going a couple of grand in debt.” immediately after commenting about policy being fixed.

    Did you know all carriers not only subsidize their phones with 2 year contracts (2 year debt), but also offer phones at full retail price so that you don’t have to have a contract? Holy shit!

    Also, all of the carriers have bad support. Including Verizon. Hell, Verizon is one of the worst on support. AT&T is one of the worst on billing collection. However, it sounds like something is missing in that story. Considering the various excuses they tend to get to reconnect service, and the fact a phone connects to a tower regardless of service availability making triangulation possible, either there was some misunderstanding between the cop and the operator, or someone is lying.

    1.  Usually the point in bitching about our carrier status is to contrast to the rest of the world where service is cheap and it’s common to have service with more than on carrier so you can swap when you change locations.

      It sucks that you can’t use your phone with another carrier – there really isn’t any reason that your iphone bought on Verizon’s network can’t work with AT&T or whomever.

      It’d be nice to see some competition – but the interesting thing (at least to me) is even though the carriers look like they compete right now – when I went shopping for a service once I put the features together every *single* carrier was the same price – with the exception of pay as you go plans.

      I’m almost certain – that within a decade or so – a anti-trust lawsuit will be brought against the carriers if things don’t change.  There is no way that you can have so many companies compete (as it is currently) and find that the price of service is the exact same on each one of them.  Without even putting much thought into it – it looks like collusion – and as they say… if it looks like a duck.

      1.  there really isn’t any reason that your iphone bought on Verizon’s network can’t work with AT&T or whomever.

        Well, except for the GSM vs. CDMA issue. The newest iPhones, to take your example, have both kinds of antennas built in, so they can be used on any network. But a lot of phones still only have one or the other, so it’s technologically impossible to use a Verizon or Sprint phone on AT&T or T-Mobile’s network, or vice versa.

        That’s another aspect of U.S. cell carrier stupidity, though — the entire rest of the world uses GSM, so an unlocked phone can be used with any carrier, but the U.S. just has to be different.

        1. To be fair, the GSM suite of technologies has some serious issues, especially in low population density areas.

          GSM tends to do poorly in areas where cell size is large (IIRC due to latency requirements), making it far more costly to do business in low population density areas, as more cell towers are needed.

          IIRC, GSM/UMTS can’t handle as high subscriber volumes within a cell as the CDMA suite can, meaning more towers are also needed in very high population density areas.

          UMTS has high power consumption, relative to CDMA EVDO. (This was reversed back in the 2.5G days – CDMA 1xRTT was higher power consumption than GSM EDGE, but as EVDO is an extension of 1xRTT, power consumption didn’t increase significantly.)

          UMTS equipment has been far harder to deploy – there’s still plenty of areas in the US that don’t have UMTS coverage AT ALL, whereas CDMA EVDO is nearly universal in areas where CDMA has been deployed, and was widely available when UMTS was only in major cities.

          That said, GSM/UMTS has much better subscriber handling than CDMA (which resulted in the Asian hack of the R-UIM for CDMA, but that was basically just a module that stored a ESN or MEID, along with the subscriber info that’s normally programmed into a CDMA phone OTA or manually – so the phone wasn’t serialized in any way that the carrier could detect), and it did have the inertia of being the mandated standard in Europe, but CDMA is actually better technology in many cases, especially given the US market’s unique requirements.

          Of course, give it a few years, and this will all be moot, as everyone but IIRC South Korea is moving to LTE, which is intended as the replacement for the GSM suite, and CDMA carriers are following. That, however, won’t fix the interoperability issues between US carriers, they’ve engineered things so that those will continue indefinitely (and while a multi-band LTE radio is almost certainly possible, the carriers won’t want it, and the carriers drive what phones are made other than the iPhone).

          (Not a cellular engineer of any sort, just someone who wishes our cellular networks didn’t suck horribly.)

    2. I had nothing but bad experiences with Verizon, scams, phony billing etc, and the worst of the worst: after being talked in circles by in-store employees, having to call Verizon service and loose minutes while being bullshitted by a ‘customer service” phone employee. I did the smart thing and switched to Metro PCS. Sure, I can’t call my sister in Hawaii without a card, but it doesn’t matter, I text her and she calls me. 
      F Verizon!

    3. Why should anyone care about the opinion of someone who can’t even keep his promises to himself?

      1. I’m afraid I don’t understand to whom you refer here. Is it Verizon, Nimdae, or Rob? 
        I’m guessing it’s Verizon (I think) but is Verizon a “he”?

        1. Nimdae’s post begins with:

          I promised myself not to read any more of Rob’s alarmist product/service bashing articles anymore, but … I figured I’d see what he had to say.

          Now re-read Antinous’ comment.

    4. Every carrier in the US overcharges for their service. Charging for text messages? Are you kidding? That’s extra bites that are sent anyway! WHY CHARGE for the data overhead that built in?
      Oh, that’s right! Americans are suckers!

  10. It’s funny how they’re working against their own self-interest here.  If the customer isn’t located and dies, what are the chances that phone bill will be paid?

    1. It’s a bit like a bankruptcy – companies have a nice process to claim against your estate and they get paid before anything can go out even if there is a will.  Debt is never a good thing to have.

  11. “Somebody has to pay the bill or we won’t reactivate the phone.”
    “Shall I arrest you? How does criminal negligence sound? If he dies while you’re being a dick, we’re talking manslaughter.”

  12. Once again, US Carrier Providers PROVE, SLIME BEFORE HUMANITY. Straight to the bottom OF THE customer service rankings they go and POOF!! What do they fine ?? THEMSELVES !!!HA THE WORST IN THEBUSINESS – WORST.

    This whole fat, un-educated frat boys tying to rub a global network they smashed into bits a year ago come back to be live they canelo? They need to convince some of their facefuck muny it should be spent.

    Every custome care call plan should stipulate customer care responsibility for 100% of the problems the customers maybe experiencing.

    1. This is what happens when you post while drunk.
      And I don’t mean your comment- I mean my reply ;^)

  13. This story is 3 freaking years old.  Why make an issue out of it now?  Is there nothing more interesting happening in the world today?

  14. I had Verizon for several years and surprisingly customer service was always friendly and helpful, even waiving charges and switching me to plans that saved me money.   But that said, the costs don’t make sense when you can get unlimited Android email/texts/web/phone from a “no contract” company like Boost.   My current Android 3G phone cost $180 and my monthly bill is now $40.  My Verizon blackberry service was $70, no texting, no real web access and a two year contract.   

  15. Phone service is a huge waste of money it has to be the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the public. If you had a coin slot on your phone like a parking meter ( or a public phone, RIP) would you put $4 a day into it, every day, for 2 years?

    When I told my wife I we had been with Verizon since 2005, at the bottom tier of their plans, and had given them over $9000 in that time, she became physically ill.

    When I call with problems and complaints they always tell me how valuable I am to them, and can they do anything to help me?, to which I always reply: yes, you can lower my rates. HA!

    * crickets *

    1.  excellent Points. I’ve developed a combination of a super cheap Virgin mobile pay as you go plan with a cheap flip phone for always have a “phone” but I make most of my calls with on my Ipod Touch wireless device 4g (I had 2 g with a microphone  headset)

      Then I set up Google Voice and Google Talk and an app called Vtok. I get a number of my choosing from Google I can call out and people can call me. All for free in the US as long as I have a wireless connection.

      As a back up I have a better quality phone app called Bria (from Counterpath) that I use with my SIP phone from Callcentric.  This app also needs wireless, but it works with very limited wireless or 3g so that if you are in a busy  Starbucks you can still make a decent voice call.
      the funnything? This app costs 6.99 and the codex that makes calls with low bandwidth? The G729 Codex costs 8.99! That is for the licensing fee.

      I didn’t get it since the places I call from work fine, but I might in the future.
      I’ve used these products to call all over the world from all over the world for free and not on going monthly fees.

  16. Easy solution to the contracts and exorbitant monthly charges, StraightTalk.  My bill dropped from $162 per month to $32 ( NEVER  more…) .  From what I understand they use the same towers as Verizon and ATT, I have not had a single dropped call.  The only frustration is that I waited soooo long to make the change.

    1. Cricket’s prepaid (for dumb phones) is actually pretty cheap. $20 – $30 a month plus I managed to gimmik my phone to act as a data tether. Granted speeds were pretty low but I viewed it more as an emergency connection than straight replacement.

    2. One warning about StraightTalk: the allegedly “unlimited” data plan (the one for which my roommate opted) is not, in fact, unlimited. StraightTalk has threatened to remotely ‘brick’ his phone for using too much bandwidth. When he asked how much he had used and what the limit was, they told him “we do not have this information.”

  17. Sounds like someone needs to be charged with interfering with law enforcement.

    Corporations are people my ass. I’ll believe it when they execute one.

  18. 1 – Stay Classy Verizon.
    2 – What does it say when there is no official number for LEO’s to call?
    3 – While this might be 3 years old, its not the first or the last time this will happen.

  19. This sounds like the officer called and didn’t identify himself properly. All of the majors carriers have teams/departments to handle  police inquiries. When I worked for Boost Mobile if someone called and identified as some kind law enforcement we gave them the number to call (we didn’t transfer because the team that handled the calls recorded the caller IDs).

  20. The only problem I see in this story is that the Law Enforcement officer was trying to get the user location without a warrant.

  21. I work in customer service for a major telco. While the operator is in the wrong for not taking initiative and simply reaching out to another department for assistance, law enforcement do have very specific ways to contact companies for these types of issues. If the man’s bill was past-due, he mostly likely went to collections and their sole purpose is to clear the past due amount.

  22. Back when telephone service was regulated, you could always get a human simply by dialing “O”, and the person was, as far as I recall, always helpful; if you were having trouble getting through, they could even tell you whether the phone was off the hook or if something was out of order.  And not only was service faster and much more reliable than it is now, but it was extremely cheap, even though it was all via landlines (which are much more expensive to install and maintain). 

    By contrast, when I went to visit my dad and he didn’t answer the door and his line was busy, it took me twenty minutes to get hold of a human, and she could tell me nothing about what was going on (how is it that the Feds can eavesdrop on all our transmissions, but she couldn’t tell me whether anything’s actually being transmitted?)  It turned out he was dying inside.

  23. Here in germany, this would be illegal failure to render assistance, so the Verizon worker and/or his employer would be in dock in short order.

  24. it’s peoples own fault, as long as people keep feeding them money to buy Verizon products , they will keep making them bigger and richer,  BOYCOTT  those greedy bastards, if everyone stop, buying and using Verizon for 4 months , i mean no home phone , TV,no cell, no internet, everyone cancel contracts , no one pays , then they would see what matters, money or human life!

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