THE FINE PRINT | CONSUMER ADVOCATE
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
It was Joan Tanos’s 84th birthday, and the phone wasn’t ringing.
“I was a little upset by that,” she said, ticking off the names of half a dozen friends who check in with her regularly by phone and who knew it was her birthday. She awaited calls from her family, too: her daughter, nephews, nieces, grand-nephews, and grand-nieces.
But there was only silence.
That’s because Verizon, Tanos’s phone provider for more than 50 years, had abruptly shut off the phone over a billing dispute tied to shoddy service, rendering her Lifeline medical alert system useless and leaving her vulnerable in an emergency.
Tanos was fortunate that a concerned family member unable to reach her came knocking on her door that afternoon to say her phone was dead. Soon, her daughter rushed there to help get service restored. It was out only one day, but imagine if she had fallen and had no way to get help.
As a society, we treat the elderly with special care. Utilities can’t shut off their elderly customers for nonpayment the same way they can with the rest of us. State-enforced rules give the elderly special protection, even when they can’t pay for electricity, heat, or their phone.
But the system didn’t work for Tanos. And it probably isn’t working for thousands of others because the decades-old rules governing utilities simply don’t do what they are intended to do.
The rules say Verizon and other providers can’t shut off phone service to anyone age 65 or older and living alone until after the companies have made their cases to the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable, in written submissions that may be challenged at a hearing. It basically allows for a timeout while all parties search for a solution, short of a service cutoff.
But the process hinges on Verizon knowing which of its customers are 65 or older, and the system for finding that out is far from perfect.
In the 1970s, the state ordered phone providers (including New England Telephone, Verizon’s predecessor) to come up with a mechanism for identifying elderly customers.
Verizon drafted a three-paragraph “elder protection” form. Once a year, the company mails it to customers, stuffed in an envelope with the monthly bill or included in electronic bills. Maybe you’ve noticed; Tanos didn’t. I bet many others have overlooked it, too.
So, when Tanos wrote to Verizon in June, stating her age and politely refusing to pay her $160 bill until the company fixed her phone, any legal protection she had as an elderly person was gone — for lack of that form, it seems.
For months, Tanos had complained of loud noises and static on the line, calls going to voice mail without the phone ringing, and messages not showing up for 24 hours.
She was fed up.
Tanos is soft-spoken and well organized. When I visited her Hyde Park home, she assembled bills, letters, and her checkbook around the kitchen table. She raised her daughter alone while working for 40 years at the old Westinghouse factory around the corner, moving up from typist to stenographer to customer service representative. “I worked hard — that’s why they kept me,” she said.
Tanos may have a velvet voice and manner, but she also has backbone.
In her June 28 letter to Verizon, Tanos described the breakdown in service:
“I have never written a letter like this before, but I feel that I am at my wit’s end. I do not feel I should be responsible for the attached bill so I am returning it with this letter. Please fix my landline and I would be happy to pay.”
Tanos informed Verizon — in the letter’s first sentence — of her age and her reliance on Verizon’s phone service “to power my much needed LifeLine.”
Yet Verizon somehow missed or ignored the fact that she was 83 (soon to be 84) and cut off her phone a month later, after sending two notices of a pending shut-off.
I asked Verizon why Tanos’s letter didn’t trigger elder protection. After all, the first three words are: “Throughout my 83 years . . . ”
Verizon and I exchanged more than 30 e-mails over several days. Ultimately, I got my answer: Yes, Verizon received the letter. But “the rules create a procedure to extend elderly treatment to customers, including that the customer has to file the form with us. That didn’t happen here.”
Verizon pointed out that it mailed two notices of pending suspension before pulling the plug. But Tanos told me she was in ongoing negotiations over a credit on her bill for past service breakdowns when the phone went out. She said the last communication she had was that a Verizon supervisor would be calling her within two days. That didn’t sound to her like Verizon intended to go through with the suspension. But the supervisor never called.
Verizon also quibbled with my saying service was shut off. “The service was put into suspension, meaning the customer could still dial out to 911, or to Verizon to discuss the account,” Verizon said. Tanos said she was unaware she could still call 911.
Still, 911 service would be useless to Tanos if she fell and could not reach the phone. She wears a Lifeline fob around her neck that lets her call for help with the press of a button wherever she is in the house. But the device requires a landline to work.
Tanos ultimately negotiated a credit three times as large as the $5 a month for a year that Verizon first offered. She says her phone service improved after the company sent technicians to her house.
Karen Charles Peterson, commissioner of the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable, which regulates Verizon, among other companies, said she was unaware of any problems with the more than 40-year-old elder-protection system, which has not been updated for decades.
But, she said, “Now that the issue has been raised, the department will keep a close watch on the complaints it receives to see if any adjustments to our regulations are needed.”
I hope Verizon and other phone, electricity, and heating providers decide they can do better, with or without pressure from state agencies.
Verizon wouldn’t tell me how many seniors have managed to register for elder protection. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vast majority have not. Suspension of service is a drastic step. What’s wrong with requiring the utilities to make sure the customers they are about to shut off are not elderly before flipping the switch?
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