T HE Q:
Reader Patricia Hall's effort to pay her daughter's T-Mobile bill was thwarted when sales reps at the Marley Station cellular store informed her they could only accept payment from a person who owned the account, or as an alternative, possessed the account holder's driver's license and Social Security number.
"We were not asking for information on her account, only to make a payment on a particular phone number," Hall said. "I called T-Mobile the next day. The customer service representative said it was their policy, but that I could make a payment without any information on the account - but phone number - over the phone, and something about a FCC regulation."
"I am confused," Hall said. "I can make a bank deposit for someone if I have their account number, can pay any utility bill or other indebtedness for anyone, so why not for a cell phone?"
Hall didn't mention if she was able to complete the payment by phone, but she asked, "Who are they protecting?"
I forwarded Hall's query to T-Mobile. The e-mail response I received was, "If the caller is the billing name or the authorized user and can verify the account they are able to make a payment on the account. Callers who are unable to complete account verification, may only make a payment over the phone if they are exempt from the payment processing fee. The payment processing fee is a $5 fee charged to customers for payments made over the phone via Customer Care."
Now that response might have made sense to T-Mobile, but it's just gobbledygook to me. I'm not even sure they tried to answer my question, which was: If you're not the account holder, do you need a Social Security number and driver's license to pay a bill in the store?
I e-mailed them back for clarification, but did not receive a response in time for my deadline.
So in an attempt to provide some sort of answer to Hall's question, I called several other cellular companies to find out what their payment policies are to see if I can make heads or tails out of what T-Mobile thought it had clearly explained to us.
There are, indeed, federal regulations that provide cellular carriers a road map on how to protect customer information. A telecommunication provider must have the customer's permission first before it can share that proprietary information with any third party.
"It's all for the benefit of the customer to their information," said Matt Sullivan, a Sprint Nextel spokesman. "With that said, there are some distinctions at our company whether you choose to pay by phone of if you pay online. Online, you have to enter some proprietary information to log on, such as your PIN number or your Social Security number.
"But if you want to pay in a retail store or by phone, you can go ahead and make a payment without having a PIN or Social Security number," Sullivan said. "However, keep in mind that the rep will not reveal anything to you about that account either. For instance, if there was a credit card number that was typically used to pay that bill, they won't tell you anything about the earlier card that was used. They would only allow you to make the payment."
Over at Verizon Wireless, non-account holders are allowed to make payments on a customer's bills.
"In our stores, payments are made through bill-payment kiosks," said Sherri Cunningham, a Verizon spokesman. "A non-account holder can go to the kiosk and enter the account information. At that time it will ask for a PIN code. If the person does not know the PIN code, it will not give them access to the account, but it will allow them to make a payment. My understanding is that they will not be able to make any inquiries on the balance, but they can make a payment."
Payments by non-account holders are also accepted over the telephone at Verizon, and there is no fee.
I'm not sure what this tells us about T-Mobile's payment policy, but while the federal regulations are a guideline on how to protect consumer information, they do not preclude each company from adopting its own standards. I can only guess since I didn't receive clarification that T-Mobile either has a much more stringent payment policy than the other carriers or that its store reps were confused and possibly gave Hall misinformation.
dan thanh firstname.lastname@example.org