For Phone Companies, Bad News Comes in Threes

Carl Weinschenk
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Three separate incidents add up to a bad few weeks for phone companies’ public relations outreach and their wallets.

According to eWeek, AT&T has agreed to pay a $25 million penalty for the theft of subscriber data from call centers in the Philippines, Columbia and Mexico. The investigation leading to the consent decree and fine was carried out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Secret Service.

The goal was to sell unlocked phones. To do so, the help of insiders was needed:

The scheme worked when a shadowy figure, identified by law enforcement officials as "El Pelon" would provide lists of phone numbers to three AT&T call center employees. The employees would then examine the company's records and provide the name and partial Social Security numbers for a price.

The name and partial Social Security numbers, according to the story, was enough information to make the scheme work. Data on more than 68,000 subscribers from the Mexican call center and more than 211,000 from the centers in Columbia and the Philippines was compromised.

The second piece of bad PR came in a call from the Consumer Union for phone companies to be more vigilant and aggressive in fighting robocalls. An online petition was launched and letters asking for more proactivity were sent to AT&T, Century Link and Verizon.

The balance of the issue is between calls by advocates to do more versus phone companies’ protestations that they are hemmed in by the cleverness of scammers, the limits of technology and legal boundaries they must respect. Going too far, they maintain, could interfere with the completion of legitimate calls.

Beyond the technical limitations, the “optics,” as political consultants call the way in which the public hears about an issue, is bad for the phone companies. Folks in general don’t give phone companies the benefit of the doubt and, of course, find these calls annoying. Why, then, are the unwanted calls still getting through to them? Of course, there may be answers to those questions that absolve the phone companies.


The third in this trio of troubles for the phone companies is a ruling on March 18 by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that T-Mobile unlawfully restricted workers’ ability to organize and to exercise other rights, according to the New York Times.

T-Mobile had quite a bit of big brother-type activity going on, even within its company handbook, according to the story:

Some of the policies in question prevented workers from communicating with one another about wages, from speaking to the news media about workplace conditions and from speaking with co-workers to marshal evidence against disciplinary charges.

Eleven of the 13 policies under scrutiny were found to be illegal. Appeals to the NLRB and in federal court are possible. The complaints were widespread and systemic – from Albuquerque, N.M.; Wichita, Kan.; Charleston, S.C. and New York City – and thus can’t be said to be the work of one rogue manager or office.

However, none of these three items alone will sour relations between phone companies and their subscribers permanently. But, a steady trickle of bad news can be corrosive and could lead to negative associations in the future.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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