Hanging up on an ex-beau can be hard to do

CONSUMING INTERESTS

August 24, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

Breaking up is hard to do, but it's even harder if your ex is using a cell phone paid for by you.

Chantel of Baltimore discovered that nettlesome fact recently when she and her boyfriend split, ending a 10-year relationship.

Figuring the end of relations should also mean the end of calls on her dime, the 29-year-old project manager contacted customer service at Sprint Nextel Corp. to suspend service on the extra phone line she gave to her quondam beau.

"I had a family-share plan that gave me 550 anytime minutes, call waiting and three-way calls for $59.99 a month," she said. "He didn't have a phone, so I gave him the extra phone and phone line I had on my family plan a couple years ago. I never added his name to the account. ... He was just using the phone."

At her request, Sprint suspended the line.

Problem is, when she called the number a few hours later to check, the line was still working.

Confused, Chantel said she called back and had the line suspended again. Hours later, she checked again, only to find the line back on.

So several more times that day, she would call to suspend the line and, amazingly enough, found it turned back on. That maniacal game of telephonic pingpong went on for three full days.

"I was shocked," she said. "If Sprint could let this happen to me, who else has it happened to? I have no idea how he was able to do that."

Before we get to what Sprint's investigation discovered, it's important to know a little background on this subject.

As you may be aware, most telecommunications companies put security measures in place a few years ago when some companies were caught selling cell phone records online by posing as a customer and asking for information about accounts.

The Feds passed a law to ban people from pretending to pose as someone else or using fraudulent tactics to persuade phone companies to hand over confidential data about customers' calling habits. As part of the added steps to maintain customer privacy, phone companies required account holders to set up personal identification numbers and security questions to access their data.

That's why at Sprint, you must have a PIN and the answer to a security question you set up to make any changes to your account, said Sprint spokesman John Taylor.

"If you don't have that information, you can't make any changes," said Taylor, who added that Sprint immediately launched an investigation into Chantel's complaint when the paper called.

Only the person or people named on the service contract, Taylor said, are the ones who can make material changes or changes that have a financial impact on an account. That could mean anything from switching calling plans to ordering a new phone. But if you're not an account holder and you have access to the account PIN and security question, you can make nonmaterial changes to the account, such as reactivating a live cell phone line, Taylor said.

But didn't Chantel cancel the phone line, which was a material change to her account?

No, Taylor said, she only suspended service. There's a huge difference. Cell phone companies will allow you to "suspend" service to a line by request if you're leaving the country for a couple of months and won't be using the line. Many members of the military use this suspension option.

Had Chantel canceled the line, that action would have surrendered the telephone number back to the system, and the only way to turn it back on would be to pay a reactivation fee, Taylor said. Her ex would have had no authority to re-add the phone line even if he had security data.

Chantel said she was finally able to cancel the line on the third day, but she still wondered how someone was able to repeatedly turn the phone back on.

She maintains that she did not share the security data with anyone and said it was unlikely anyone could have guessed the answers. She suspects Sprint customer reps allowed themselves to be persuaded to make changes and even fooled into changing her PIN and security question at one point.

Taylor, however, said records show that while her ex was not named as an account holder, he was listed on Chantel's account as a user. Also, in every instance that customer reps were asked to reactivate the phone, an accurate PIN and security answer were provided, Taylor said.

"Our records show he had access to her personal ID and her security question," Taylor said. "That's how he was able to reactivate the phone. We have records that show that he called multiple times and had that information multiple times. Our carrier reps did everything correctly."

Could it be that Chantel accidentally shared the information to her Sprint account and possibly forgot? Could it be that her former paramour guessed or stumbled across the crucial access data? Or could it be Sprint's customer reps goofed, multiple times?

Your guess is as good as mine. Efforts to reach Chantel's ex were unsuccessful. A call to a prior home and his father found that he no longer lived there. We're only using Chantel's first name because we couldn't find her ex to get his side of the story.

But regardless of the unanswered details in this case, the only fact that's significant here is the importance of keeping your PIN, security data and passwords to yourself. It's important to change your security codes often, and it's vital to use different passwords that are difficult to guess for different accounts.

Because once you lose control over the crucial access keys to your financial and confidential data, the last thing you'll have to worry about is your love life.

Dan Thanh Dang's column also appears each Thursday.

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