MetroPCS gouges customers with $3 fee to pay bill in store

Consumers have grown accustomed to being nickel-and-dimed by wireless companies, but MetroPCS is the only one that charges a fee to pay a bill at a company store.

One of the most dubious practices of the business world is making people pay to pay — charging customers money so they can give the company money.

Want to pay by credit card? That'll cost you. Want to pay by phone? That'll cost you. Want to pay using a fully automated, no-human-being-anywhere-in-sight computer system? That'll cost you.

And then there's the wireless company MetroPCS, which takes things to a whole other level by charging customers a $3 fee to pay their bill in person at a MetroPCS store, even in cash.

John Farrell received this particular poke in the eye when he spotted a MetroPCS store while driving recently in Sherman Oaks. He figured it would be a convenient chance to stop off and pay his $25 monthly bill.

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Farrell, 61, a freelance writer, said he's not exactly living like a Kardashian. "To be honest, I hardly ever have anything in my checking account."

MetroPCS allows customers to pay their bills for free online, but Farrell said he doesn't have regular computer access and can never be sure at any given time that he has the funds to cover an automatic withdrawal.

So he finds it easier and more practical to pay by phone with his debit card each month.

"They charge me a $3 fee for that," Farrell said. "I guess that's because I speak with a human being. I call it a poor tax."

Farrell's more accommodating than I am. A $3 charge for someone to take your call and enter your debit card number into a computer seems pretty ridiculous. How long could this take? A minute? Two minutes?

But OK. MetroPCS probably outsources its call-center operations and there's a cost to having a third party process payments, though nowhere close to $3 per transaction.

And if it costs $3 to pay by phone through a human being, how come MetroPCS charges $2 to pay by phone using its automated system? That's only one-third less expensive for the company?

For the record, the answer to that last question is no. A 2009 study by Microsoft on automated phone systems found that "self-service tasks cost a business pennies."

More to the point, how to account for MetroPCS charging $3 to pay your bill in person at a company-owned MetroPCS store?

"When I walked in," Farrell recalled, "I told the guy I wanted to pay my bill. He said they'd be happy to take my money — for an extra $3."

The MetroPCS worker called it a service fee, as if receiving a customer's payment represented a beyond-the-call-of-duty chore for a company employee.

There's no extra fee for signing up for service, no extra fee for buying a phone. How does MetroPCS justify an extra fee for making an in-store bill payment?

Drew Crowell, a MetroPCS spokesman, declined to answer that question.

I had expected him at least to point out that receiving a bill payment represents use of a store worker's valuable time. But apparently Crowell knew better than to make this argument.

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