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The Minneapolis man thought he had gotten a great deal when he paid $265 for a "brand spanking new" Nokia Lumia 710 smartphone from a man selling it on Craigslist. The protective film on the phone's screen hadn't even been removed.
Jay Armstrong, a three-year customer of T-Mobile, added the phone to his plan, but two months later it died on his wife, Cheryl, as she drove back from an East Coast trip.
T-Mobile's customer service staff suggested they power the phone off and on and replace a memory chip. Those efforts were futile.
Armstrong then took his problem to T-Mobile's supervisory level. There, he learned that the company had locked the phone because the original owner, who had acquired it at a reduced price on a payment plan, had stopped making payments, Armstrong said.
"They likened the shut-off of our phone to disabling a stolen device," Armstrong said.
By blocking unpaid-for, lost or stolen phones, "T-Mobile significantly reduces the number of handsets acquired by fraudulent methods for sale via third-party auction sites or black-market outlets," a spokesman for the provider told Whistleblower.
The trail of sales
The person who originally bought the phone activated it and agreed to the payment plan just one day before Armstrong purchased the phone, T-Mobile told Whistleblower.
Armstrong said he bought the phone from a man named Andy.
Andy, of Medina, who declined to give his last name in an interview with Whistleblower, said that he bought the phone through Craigslist from an Eden Prairie man named Lloyd, but that he decided he didn't like the operating system.
Whistleblower was unable to determine Lloyd's identity.
In an effort to make lemonade out of lemons, Armstrong asked to pay off the original owner's balance. But he was told that only the account-holder could make those payments.
He asked for the original owner's contact information. Sorry, he was told, that's private information.
Any way the phone could be unlocked? Only if the original owner paid up.
"It looks like this phone is in a tough situation," Armstrong recalls one T-Mobile supervisor observing.
With the phone banished from the T-Mobile family, Armstrong considered it a "denial of service situation," he said, and the couple switched to AT&T.
That's when they got socked with $400 in early termination fees, $200 per phone.
T-Mobile does give some customers a get-out-of-T-Mobile-free card if the company "materially decrease[s]" the services it agreed to provide, according to its contract, but in Armstrong's case it was the phone, not the service, that was out of commission.
Phone could have been vetted
Armstrong said that at the time he believed the sale was on the up and up, but he acknowledged that he is partly to blame. "I didn't do the proper vetting, and it was a hard little lesson to learn," he said.
Experts suggest that before considering a used phone, a buyer should run its serial number past cellphone providers to find out whether it has a shady past.
A system to share information among wireless carriers is in the works and should make that verification easier.
In Armstrong's case, the T-Mobile spokesman said, a check of the phone's "IMEI number ... would have informed him that this device could not be used on T-Mobile's network," because it was under contract with a different subscriber who hadn't fully paid for it.
T-Mobile holds its ground
In a June 12 letter, the company denied a request by Armstrong to waive the termination fee. T-Mobile began calling him every third day to ask for payment, he said.
Armstrong subsequently filed complaints with the Minnesota attorney general's office and the Federal Communications Commission.
On June 24, he received a "final notice" from T-Mobile saying that the bill "may" go to a collection agency if he didn't pay up by July 4.
T-Mobile's stance is consistent with the language of its online "Terms and Conditions," which come to an impressive 10 pages single-spaced when printed out. The document lets readers know who holds most of the cards.
• "We can change any terms in the agreement at any time."
• T-Mobile "may limit, suspend or terminate your service ... if it is ... unprofitable to us."
• "You agree we are not liable for problems related to Service availability or quality."
And Whistleblower's favorite:
• " ... you cannot rely on any other documents or statements by any sales, service representatives or other [T-Mobile] agents."
Whistleblower recommends a full read of the T&C -- not to be confused with TLC -- if only to learn how to write as though you're the boss.
The document, which doubles as the contract, does not warn customers about the risks of breach of contract by total strangers, except to say that T-Mobile is not a party to any third-party purchase.
One day after Armstrong's bill was to enter the collections process, T-Mobile made a concession.
" ... in recognition and appreciation for the years [Armstrong] has been a valued customer of ours ... [we are] "releasing him from his contractual early termination fee. ... However, we cannot unlock this phone for him," a T-Mobile statement said.
Unfortunately, this goodwill gesture on the company's part will not bring Armstrong back into the fold.
"Without that phone, that's not a possibility," he said.
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