Ex-CenturyLink employee alleges fraud in customer billing

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A lawsuit filed in Arizona accuses CenturyLink of a scam that signed people up for accounts without authorization.

According to the suit, former CenturyLink employee Heidi Heiser worked from her home as a customer service and sales representative between August 2015 and October 2016. Heiser says she was fired shortly after telling CEO Glen Post about customers being bilked on a company message board. She alleges that the unauthorized charges add up to “many millions” from customers over the past two years.

The 11-page filing specifically cites wrongful termination and requests financial relief to be determined in trial by jury.

“CenturyLink is here to serve our customers. As such, CenturyLink holds itself and its employees to the highest ethical standards and does not condone any type of unethical behavior,” said Annmarie Sartor, external communication manager for CenturyLink. “The allegations made by our former employee are completely inconsistent with our company policies, culture and Unifying Principles, which include honesty and integrity.

“Should an employee have any concerns about ethics or compliance issues, we have an Integrity Line in place, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This employee did not make a report to the Integrity Line, and our leadership team was not aware of this matter until the lawsuit was filed. We take these allegations seriously and are diligently investigating this matter,” Sartor continued.

CenturyLink, headquartered in Monroe, Louisiana, provides internet access, telephone and television services across the country. The company is working on a $34 billion merger with Level 3 Communications.

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Stock in CenturyLink fell sharply after a report about the suit was released by Bloomberg on Friday afternoon but had begun a gradual uptick by 3:15 p.m. As of market close, the price per share had fallen 4.56 percent. Level 3 Communications shares similarly started dropping around 2 p.m. but started were back on the rise after 3 p.m. As of market close, they were down 2.77 percent.

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The Arizona Republic, part of the USA Today Network, obtained a copy of the suit, filed June 14, from the Maricopa County Superior Court on Friday.

In addition to Century Link, the suit also lists Green and White Corporations and John and Jane Does I-XX as defendants. The unknown entities are individuals, corporations or business entities that Heiser believes have caused harm with either actions or omissions and are also liable to her but whose identity she does not know. The suit argues that she reserves the right to substitute those names once the person or company has been identified.

CenturyLink, headquartered in Monroe, provides internet access, telephone and television services across the country. The company is working on a $34 billion merger with Level 3 Communications.

Stock in CenturyLink fell sharply after the report was released by Bloomberg on Friday afternoon but had begun a gradual uptick by 3:15 p.m. As of market close, the price per share had fallen 4.56 percent.

Level 3 Communications shares similarly started dropping around 2 p.m. but were back on the rise after 3 p.m. As of market close, they were down 2.77 percent.

What’s in the complaint?

During her tenure with CenturyLink, Heiser, like hundreds of others, worked from home and addressed customer calls over the phone with lines and equipment provided by the company. Heiser’s attorneys argue that four or five months into her employment, she realized through customer calls and data review that multiple customers had additional accounts that they said they neither requested nor approved. 

Heiser, the suit states, was aware the company had performance and incentive programs based on sales of lines and services.

Heiser’s attorneys argue that the system and practices used by the company allowed employees with “a personal incentive to add services or lines to customer accounts to falsely indicate on the CenturyLink system approval by a customer of new lines or services, which would inure to the direct or indirect benefit of such CenturyLink agents or their superiors.”

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She believes that indications of account changes were not apparent to customers, and those changes could increase company revenues.

Additionally, Heiser claims she learned that when customers complained about unauthorized changes and subsequent charges that company policy was to state that the system indicated that the customer had approved the service and demand payment through the date of the complaint and only correct it going forward.

A cursory search of customer review sites online show similar complaints.

On Yelp, Andrew V. of Seattle posted March 28 about problems removing a penalty from his bill followed by “their billing system has made errors, in centurylink’s favor, on more than half of our bills.”

Michael F. of Chandler, Arizona, posted May 17 on Complaints Board that his bill was repeatedly substantially higher than the agreed on price.

Heiser alleges that quality control monitoring and management review would make the company managers aware of these issues. She says no one informed her that customer service agents should stop making unauthorized account changes, that they should report finding of such to anyone or that a policy or practice was in place or being developed to halt such issues.

Because of this, the suit alleges, Heiser assumed the company created the incentive offerings, sales practices and culture required to create the problem, ignoring customer complaints and reinforcing the structure that allowed the fraud to happen.

The suit alleges that about the same time, the national news of Wells Fargo Bank creating fake customer accounts broke, and Heiser recognized “frightening parallels.” More recently, Wells Fargo has been accused of tampering with the mortgages of customers who filed for bankruptcy protections.

Heiser reportedly discussed her concerns with three managers in her chain of command. The suit states she was told to stay positive and not discuss the matter further. She states she does not know of any attempt to make changes after those discussions.

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The call system that Heiser used for work reportedly started to malfunction and drop calls in May 2016. She reportedly sent about 50 emails in an attempt to get the problem fixed, but she reports that it was never repaired.

In October, CenturyLink held an online question and answer session with Post that allowed employees to post questions online for his review. Heiser asked why customers were being billed for things they did not request. She was never answered and she thinks the question was pulled down shortly after she posted it.

Two days later, Heiser was called an informed that her employment was being suspended because she allegedly had hung up on customers.

Heiser’s attorneys argue that until she was fired for whistleblowing, their client had never received a negative performance review or been told she needed to correct any actions.

Follow Bonnie Bolden on Twitter @Bonnie_Bolden_ and on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1RtsEEP. BrieAnna Frank of The Arizona Republic contributed to this report.

What do I do if I get a bad bill?

  • First, try to work out the problem with the company in question. Keep records of the conversation and the outcome or resolution.
  • If needed, escalate the issue to a regulatory agency, like the Public Service Commission, or a nonprofit group like the Better Business Bureau.

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