9:31 PM EDT, September 16, 2013
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.
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.
I stopped by a MetroPCS store at the corner of Main Street and Pico Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles. I was the only customer.
The woman behind the counter was straightening things up. She didn't seem overburdened with corporate activities.
I asked about bill payments. The saleswoman said I'd have to pony up $3 if I wanted to pay at the store with a credit card, a debit card or cash. I asked why.
"That's the rule," she explained.
I guess Crowell saw no upside in defending an indefensible company practice. But he did offer this: "MetroPCS works to educate its customers regarding the wide array of payment options available so they can select options that best fit their needs."
MetroPCS is the only major wireless company that gouges customers in this way. There's no fee for paying your bill at an AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile or Sprint store.
You may be hit with a fee by these other guys for paying at an authorized dealer such as Radio Shack or for paying by phone — T-Mobile's $5 phone charge is a slap in the face — but in-store payments are gratis.
MetroPCS merged last year with T-Mobile, yet T-Mobile hasn't done anything about MetroPCS' customer-unfriendly billing practice.
Glenn Zaccara, a T-Mobile spokesman, said the two companies keep their distance from each other, policy-wise. "We have two brands that operate as separate business units," he said.
Consumers have grown accustomed to being nickel-and-dimed by wireless companies. From activation fees to early-termination fees, this is an industry that's completely at peace reaching into customers' pockets.
But a $3 fee for paying your bill in cash at a company store? That's nothing but greed, pure and simple.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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