A bill for a bill? What gives?

Consumers who haven't migrated their bill receiving functions online are increasingly finding that they're at the mercy of companies now charging for paper statements. It's a source of irritation for many who feel that businesses have no right to charge for information that informs consumers how much is owed.

For many, including Rob Connor of Charleston, S.C., providing an itemized, paper bill is simply a cost of doing business companies must incur, and one that shouldn't be foisted upon consumers' wallets.

Connor's beef is with mobile-phone company T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telecom AG, which recently sent him a note advising that it will soon begin charging $1.50 a month to receive a summary paper bill and $3.50 a month for detailed statement.
It's an imposition for Connor, who doesn't have Internet access at his home. T-Mobile is making the change, which takes effect this month, in part to help the environment, it says, but Connor isn't swayed.

"This thing of having to pay so I can pay is just a little too much," he told MSNBC's Red Tape Chronicles. "And I'm certainly not interested in some bogus argument about me contributing to global warming by NOT signing on to making it cheaper for T-Mobile to send me a bill."

T-Mobile isn't alone in promoting paperless billing. Sprint, for example, offers a $5 credit to customers who opt for electronic bills and cable-television provider Time Warner offers its customers a $1 monthly credit to forgo paper statements.

But T-Mobile's decision to charge even for a summary bill puts the company in a unique, scrooge-ish league.

After considering several factors, including costs and environmental impact, T-Mobile has begun charging for paper bills, the company told MSNBC. It noted that detailed billing information is freely available online and in some instances through consumers' cell phones.

The practice of charging for paper bills raises a larger question in the minds of consumer advocates: Do companies have the right to charge for information to which consumers have every right? It certainly has ignited a debate on the company's Forums page at its Web site. One contributor said in part: "I'm not happy about this. As a consumer I'm appalled and regardless of one's opinion on the matter as a consumer we should all be appalled."

Others questioned whether T-Mobile's decision doesn't constitute a change in the company's terms of service, which would allow users angry about the charge to walk away from the carrier without penalty.

Harvey Rosenfeld, founder of Consumer Watchdog, told MSNBC that consumers have every right to be angry. They are entitled to receive bills and invoices that detail costs.

"You need to know if you're being overcharged, if you've received a promotional discount," he said. "You can't figure anything out from a bill if all they give you is a single unitemized bill."

Further, if a company begins charging for a service it previously provided for nothing, "that's a material change for sure," he said. "I think consumers can get out of their contracts."
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