No Carry, No Cash

In The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams created a plethora of memorable minor characters. One of them was Rob McKenna, Rain God. This mysterious web page suggests I am not alone in remembering the character. McKenna hardly appears in the stories, but he is easy to remember because he is a truck driver who is constantly rained upon. As the story explains,

“And as he drove on, the rainclouds dragged down the sky after him, for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him.”

I think of Rob McKenna whenever bad luck seems like an inadequate explanation of events in my life. Though it is not true, I sometimes think of myself as a God of Billing Errors. It is not like I am looking for them. On the contrary, I wish they were not there. It just so happens they keep looking for me. Unlike McKenna’s rain and truck driving, I guess being plagued by billing errors can be an advantage in my line of work. It certainly makes life easier, except when it comes to checking my own bills. I have to scrutinize them very carefully, which is annoying. Now, I had thought that we had a cataloged every kind of leakage in the TMF RA Guidebook. But I can proudly announce, after an investigation of my own landline bills which began in November 2006 (!) that I have identified a completely new genus of leakage. I have never seen this kind of leakage before, and never heard anyone else describe a leakage of this type. If I was a Victorian botanist, I would hope it became known as Priezkalns’ Leakage Point. However, I am not so sure I want my name associated with somebody else’s mistake, just because I happened to find it. Instead, let us call it indefinite ongoing carry-forward leakage.

Back in December 2006 I blogged about how BT had made a mess of billing, crediting and taking direct debit payments from my bank account when I stopped using them as an ISP. The conclusion of that story was that BT had strangely decided to collect UK£1.65 too little in my November 2006 payment, and that the UK£1.65 reappeared on the following month’s bill as a brought forward item. You will have to go back and read the original post to understand why there was a UK£1.65 anomaly in the first place, because the explanation is an epic in its own right. I thought that carrying forward UK£1.65 to my December 2006 was the end of the story. I was wrong. In December 2006 my direct debit payment was again UK£1.65 less than the amount on the bill, and the value was brought forward to my January 2007 bill. The same thing has happened in every month since, with £1.65 being carried forward every month, and never being paid. Before you ask, yes I did check my bank statements every month, and every month the payment was UK£1.65 less than the figure stated on the bill. In March 2008, the same thing happened again, with my bill total including UK£1.65 brought forward from the previous bill, but the payment taken from my bank account was once again UK£1.65 less than the bill total. However, in April 2008, something changed. There was no brought forward line in the bill summary. The UK£1.65 had disappeared completely. It was nowhere on the bill. When payment was taken from my bank, it was equal to the amount on my bill for the first time since this had all started in 2006. For sixteen months BT had repeatedly postponed collecting the UK£1.65 it was owed, shifting the amount from one bill to the next. In April 2008, seventeen months after the payment was due, it seems BT gave up and wrote the amount off. No doubt the data was chugging round some interminable processing loop all that time, and finally reached an age where the data automatically expired or when somebody decided to purge it. Presumably BT’s age analysis lacks the sensitivity to identify such a small amount, or perhaps it does not occur to anyone to monitor aged debt for customers who pay automatically from their banks and where the payments are always successful. Hence, courtesy of BT, we all have a new kind of leakage to look out for: indefinite ongoing carry-forward.

BT’s bills have been audited to prove they do not underbill, to an accuracy of 0.05%, as well as proving they do not overbill. Hmmm. On the basis of this error, the leakage rate for my own bill is more like 1%. The audit also checks that no items get billed more than 3 months late. Hmmm. At least by writing off the amount in error, BT have spared me the trouble of complaining about making a collection that was well over a year late. One excuse for BT is that their audit only covers some of the products on the bill. My error related to broadband, which is one of the products excluded from BT’s audit, though it looks like this technical glitch could have occurred in relation to any product on the bill. Confused yet? Most people would be. The reason for auditing is to supposedly increase consumer confidence. Hmmm. Based on this performance, excuse me if I keep on checking my own bills. Checking my own bills is a nuisance, but I would rather not rely on the auditors of these bills, with their quirks, obscure rules and penchant for treating every mistake as a special case that can be ignored. It has taken me many man-hours just to review my own bill, and each year these auditors have about the same amount of time to review all of BT’s systems, processes and bills. They would attempt to audit a mediation platform in no more time than it took me to write this post. Consumers are better off relying on themselves than on auditors that seem to be accountable to no-one. If forced to make a choice, I would rather take my chances on a driving holiday with Rob McKenna, Rain God. At least we could share stories about our bad luck.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.