Monday, January 27, 2014

Losing My Virgin-ity


It is the purpose of the writer, I think, to elevate. His job is to shine a light on injustice, to point out the inequalities in this world and to play whatever part, no matter how minute, in righting those universal wrongs. What the writer is not to use his craft for is to settle scores; to rail against the petty and insignificant transgressions to which we are all subject. It is not the function of any writer, anywhere, to use his pulpit to seek cheap revenge for a perceived offense, especially one that is more of a personal than wide-ranging nature. It’s simply an improper thing to do.

So let’s begin.

First off, I still have a flip phone. Now, I understand I just lost about half of you, the half who can’t accept that anyone who still uses something as archaic as a flip phone can have anything of value to say, or be on the right side of any argument. You might be right.

Still, the truth is I have used that phone for many years, through an account at Virgin Mobile. I always laugh when some saleskid in the mall asks me how much I pay each month for my phone, with the intention of telling me how he can greatly reduce my bill. When I tell him $6.99 it pretty much shuts him up.

Now, do I get the Internet and all the other goodies for that amount? Of course not. And I don’t get any minutes either. My calls cost ten cents a minute and a text is fifteen cents. I understand that these rates would certainly bankrupt the parents of nearly any teenager within a few months, but I almost never use the thing. I rarely make a phone call and send possibly two texts a month. Oh, there is a game I play on it while I sit in my car waiting for the local pool to open each Saturday, but that’s free. (The game is free. The pool, sadly, is not.)

Some time ago, and I’m guessing two to three years, I received a text from Virgin Mobile that I needed to add money to my account. I found this peculiar, as I had set up my monthly bill to be paid automatically. Regardless, I deposited fifty dollars in my account. A short time later I received an e-mail saying the previous text had been an error. I hadn’t needed to add money to the account after all. I didn’t think much about it, figuring I could use the excess to pay future bills until it ran out.

One day I noticed that the balance in my account had grown to $99. And yet I was still receiving occasional notices that my account needed to be “topped-off” to pay my monthly bill. Why this was necessary when I had automatic payments, not to mention a hundred bucks in my account, I didn’t understand, and still don’t. And so I let it slide, assuming they’d take the money out eventually. They didn’t. Obviously I needed to call Virgin Mobile to instruct them to do that.

We can’t do that, said the nice lady on the phone. You have to make a new payment of at least ten dollars to bring your account current. Well, I figured like most major corporations, Virgin Mobile had their reasons for doing things in the most asinine manner possible, and so I told her I’d do it their way. I’d top off my account with ten bucks, and just have them send me a check for the $99 balance that was just sitting there unused.

We can’t do that, she said for the second time in the conversation. We don’t give refunds. Well, that got my attention, as you might imagine. Slowly I asked her if it seemed right that they should send me an e-mail requesting additional money, follow it up with one to say the request had been a mistake and then refuse to return that money.

Even that lady, corporate stooge that she obviously was, couldn’t come up with a scenario where that was an honest thing to do. And so she put me on hold, talked with a “supervisor,” and returned to tell me that, yes indeed, the sales department would be sending me a refund for my $99. I thanked her, hung up the phone and began the wait for my refund check.

Which, as you already know, never came. And so two months later I again called Virgin Mobile and again explained the story, this time to a nice man. He also told me that they don’t refund balances in the account, but I could use that money to buy something from their website, like one of their shiny new phones. I pointed out that I had already had a phone, though any shininess had admittedly long faded away.

And so I asked him if I was correct in assuming that the only way I could now get my $99 would be to close my account. He said yes, that seemed to be the only way. And then he suggested that before I took such “drastic” action I might want to write a letter to their headquarters and explain my situation. (The situation being, in case you’ve lost track here, is Virgin Mobile asking me to add money to my account, then telling me they made a mistake asking me to add money to my account, and then refusing to give me my money back.)

And so I did. I wrote a letter to Virgin Mobile headquarters. And it was a nice one, too. Well, for the most part. I won’t deny the careful reader might find a touch of sarcasm here and there, like when I suggested that asking for money, saying it was a mistake and then refusing to give it back might not be the most ethical of business practices, but it certainly was a profitable one.

Two months passed and I received no reply in response to my carefully crafted letter. And so I went to the Virgin Mobile website and sent an e-mail to their customer service people asking them to please close my account and send me a check for my $99. After all, enough was enough.

“Did you read the e-mail you got from Virgin?” Spiked asked. Actually she asked me this three times, and when I noticed a certain amount of glee in her voice I figured I’d better do just that. The e-mail said, in essence, that they were sorry that I wanted to close my account, and also to remind me when an account is closed all money in that account is kept by Virgin Mobile. Read that sentence again and let it sink in.
No, even better, let me give you the exact wording:

“Remember, that as stated in our Terms of Services, upon service deactivation you will be assessed a termination fee, which is equal to the remaining balance in your account. The balance is not refundable, even if you reactivate your service.”

And so I once again found myself talking to a nice lady at Virgin Mobile, who was clearly in over her head with this one. When I explained the situation it became obvious that she had no answers, and so began to provide answers to questions that I hadn’t asked. I hate when they do that. She told me that if I closed the account my balance would be “swept.” I asked her to drop the jargon and tell me what “swept” meant. I was pretty sure they weren’t “sweeping” it in my direction. The lady confirmed that, and then went on to remind me I could always use the money to buy a new phone.

She also said that if I closed my account, the money would indeed be swept, but then they would look into “options” for getting me a refund. I checked the calendar, confirmed that I hadn’t been born yesterday and so proceeded to laugh into the phone and ask her if she could possibly be any more vague. Still, she was the last nice person that I would speak to at Virgin, as I was then once again switched to a supervisor.

Ah, but I had a plan. If this supervisor gave me the same story, that my money would forever remain out of my reach, I would not close my account. What I would do is thank him for his time, tell him I wanted to think about closing my account (as it was such a major decision) and then hang up. I would then proceed to the Virgin Mobile website and buy a phone, or something else, with my $99. It wasn’t a perfect solution, of course, as I would still be adding more money into Virgin’s voracious pockets, but at least I’d be getting something. I could always sell the damn thing on Ebay or give it to some deserving, and incredibly attractive, young woman who might then feel compelled to show her gratitude.

“You asked me for money, said it was a mistake, told me I was getting a refund and now tell me you’re keeping my money?” I asked the supervisor in a voice that was really at this point only about 50% fake incredulity, if that.

We went back and forth a number of times, he talking of their “policy” and me asking what kind of business this was. I may have even used the word “thievery” a time or two. It wasn’t all outrage and accusations, though. There was a part of me that truly wanted to understand what was happening to me. I told him that I must be missing something, and could he please explain once again, slowly this time for my tired old brain, why I couldn’t get back the money that I had put in my account. He had nothing.

Here’s what’s bothering me. I know I put $50 in that account. I may have also put money it at earlier dates. It’s looking to me that this is not the way to top off your account. I even asked the supervisor if it was a case of me putting money in “the wrong Virgin pocket.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I’m still at something of a loss to explain where the total of $99 came from. And so, apparently, are they.

The supervisor worked his way around to explaining that I could use that $99 to pay for a monthly plan, and I stopped dead. Isn’t that what I had asked for? Success at last! I would be happy to use the money for that. I would use it to pay for my current plan. No, it would have to be a new plan. Why? Because. And how much is that? Twenty dollars a month. But I don’t want a new plan.

“If I were the President you’d find a way to get me a refund!” I told him. Okay, I’m not proud of that one, but hey, they can’t all be gems. And then the supervisor tried a new tactic: He began to tell me all the things I was going to lose by cancelling my account.

“You’re going to lose your phone number,” he finally threatened.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine was telling his lunch companion that I was a writer. Either interested or feigning interest, she had asked him in what genre I wrote.

“Is sarcasm a genre?” he had replied.

I was proud of that, of course. And yet I feel that I never really knew sarcasm until I answered the supervisor’s threat that I was going to lose my phone number,

“Oh, I’ll try to somehow get through my life without it,” I said. I swear to you, it virtually dripped.

He tried one more thing. It was clearly a tactic they saved until the end, their last trick to save a customer. The supervisor was offering me, and I could barely believe it, a ten dollar credit to use towards my account. In other words, I could top off right now…for free!

“So, you’re giving me ten dollars and keeping my $99?” I replied.

And so, when my guffaw had subsided, I explained to him exactly what we were going to do.

“You’re going to close my account. Virgin Mobile is going to enjoy spending my $99. And I am going to write about this online.” And we each wished each other a nice day, which I meant sincerely but unfortunately my words still carried something of a “fuck you” tone. So did his, actually.

I know, that last part about writing online sounds almost as silly as the “President” line, but it’s not really. Even though my readership has grown in the last few years from 500 a month to 10,000 a month, I realize this is still not The Drudge Report. And yet the word seems to get around, eventually, and on the rare occasions that I write these vengeful little bits, they always manage to find their way to the evil corporation involved. I mean, didn’t I once educate American Airlines that there are not actually “50 contiguous states”?

And so after my terse, firm close with the supervisor I was feeling rather good. For about five minutes. Then I remembered: this wasn’t the game plan! I immediately went to the Virgin Mobile website and frantically began to look at phones, not really sure what I was seeing. (Flip phone, remember?) Finally I saw something called a Galaxy Reverb (could that possibly be right?) and it was only $79. I didn’t know what it did, exactly. For all I knew it was a device that could only be used for cow herding in Lithuania. Still, I had to get something. I just had to.

And so I punched in my Virgin Mobile phone number and then my pin number. Access denied. I tried it again, in case I had made a typing error, but I knew I hadn’t. Access was again denied. You know, there was a time in this country when you could write a check and count on a three or four day float before you needed to cover it. Those days are clearly gone. And, in faster than a sneeze, so was my Virgin Mobile account. Apparently they’re very efficient when they want to be.

Someday I may understand Virgin Mobile’s seemingly larcenous policy to be something more than the simple cash-grab I now believe it to be. I may even owe them an apology, although it is difficult for me to imagine under what set of circumstances this might occur. Until then, I’ll just leave you with the reminder that this same company, which seems unable to properly manage a miniscule sum of money or to even answer a simple letter, plans to, in the not too distant future, place people inside a rocket ship and shoot them into space. For a fee, of course. Yes, I’ll be signing up for that real soon.
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