Kevin Hunt: Sprint Charges $41 For Return Of Unused Phone In Unopened Box

Despite an assortment of iPhones, Android smartphones and even some nerdy clamshell models available at its local and online stores, Sprint actually sells only two types of phones — hot and cold.

If only John Mik of Glastonbury had known he was ordering a hot (activated) instead of a cold (not activated) phone last December. Maybe then he would have understood why, after changing his mind and returning an HTC Evo 4G phone in an unopened box within the 14-day return period, he soon received a bill for $41.24.

How, Mik asked, could Sprint charge him for a phone he never unpacked, never used, never physically activated and returned within Sprint's grace period?

When he ordered the phone Dec. 13, Mik had been looking for a better monthly rate than his AT&T package. (Too late for Mik, but: Always tell your present provider, phone or cable, that you will be dropping its service for a competitor before actually dropping the service. Often, you'll get a matching or better offer.) After the Sprint phone shipped, Mik contacted AT&T.

"They counter-offered," he says, "and I decided to stay with them."

So when the new phone arrived he drove it to the Sprint store in Manchester the day after Christmas. He left with a receipt acknowledging the return and there were no signs of any charges.

Then Sprint emailed him a bill for $41.24 in January. "As you know," Mik says, "these automated emails are sometimes delayed by at least a month, so I ignored it, thinking that it was an error on their part."

Mik says an identical bill arrived in February. In March, another bill came with a collection-agency alert. That got Mik's attention, so he called Sprint.

"The response from the customer service representative was that they start/activate service the moment the phone is shipped. Excuse me! That's unacceptable," Mik said.

That's not entirely accurate. Sprint provided The Bottom Line with a "Satisfaction Guarantee Policy," effective last September, that for returns or exchanges distinguishes a hot (activated) phone from a cold (not activated) phone. A hot phone is activated as soon as it leaves the warehouse. A cold phone is not activated when it leaves the warehouse. It's activated by the user. Cold phones never activated can be returned any time.

Mik certainly didn't know the difference between hot and cold, nor did he realize that Sprint even had a "Satisfaction Guarantee Policy" that obviously did not guarantee a customer's satisfaction.

Mik definitely was not satisfied.

"There was no disclosure stating the phone and service was immediately activated upon ordering," says Mik. "If that's the case, then the SIM card is already installed in the phone upon arrival — which I could not have known since I never opened the package. To me, it seems a little unusual."

Mik did notice on the return receipt, however, a notation for "de-Activation" followed by a code and $0.00 under the amount due. If there's a "de-Activation," it's reasonable to assume the existence of a significant other we'll call "Act-tivation."

But is it reasonable to assume Mike was informed of hot vs. cold when he ordered the phone online, or was it buried somewhere in a 13-page "Terms & Conditions" disclosure TBL found on the Sprint website.

"I did not see any verbiage covering, or talking about, that distinction," says Mik. "Nor during any of my conversations and correspondences with Sprint was it mentioned."

Sprint wasn't particularly eager to talk about Mik's experience either specifically or generically.

"Please know that I did send this to our executive services team," Michelle Mermelstein, a Sprint spokeswoman, told TBL in early April. "My understanding is that they handled this with the customer already in accordance with our policies."

In July, Mermelstein passed along Sprint's full "Satisfaction Guarantee Policy." TBL returned to the Sprint site and could not find it without using the site's search function.

In May, Sprint sent Mik a letter indicating its decision was unalterable. Mik had to pay the $41.24.

So he did, finally, and "moved on."

Mik now knows the difference between hot and cold. He's officially cold on Sprint.

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