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AT&T Slaps Family With a $19,370 Cell Phone Bill 725

theodp writes "Mama, don't let your babies send e-mail and photos from Vancouver. A Portland family racked up nearly $20,000 in charges on their AT&T bill after their son headed north to Vancouver and used a laptop with an AirCard twenty-one times to send photos and e-mails back home. The family said they wished they would have received some kind of warning before receiving their chock-full-of-international-fees 200-page bill in the mail for $19,370. Guess they didn't read the fine print in that 'Stay connected whether you are traveling across town, the US, or the world' AT&T AirCard pitch. Hey, at least it wasn't $85,000."
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AT&T Slaps Family With a $19,370 Cell Phone Bill

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  • Lesson learned (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Tubal-Cain ( 1289912 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:44PM (#24904637) Journal

    You know AT&T is going to abuse the rules. Bring along some CDs to burn and mail home next time.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tubal-Cain ( 1289912 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:49PM (#24904701) Journal

    I blame the fine print. They are so verbose that you could be agreeing to anything.

  • Re:Lesson learned (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:55PM (#24904763) Homepage Journal

    Abuse the rules? Umm the contract stipulated the charges, its not ATTs fault the customer ran up time and got an automated bill for 19 grand.

    I doubt a human saw the bill as it was printed, packaged and mailed all automatically.

    Sure its insanely excessive, but they did use the service fair and square. I also would be wiling to bet if they called ATT and rationally talked to them, the bill would go away.

  • by Rachel Lucid ( 964267 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:57PM (#24904795) Homepage Journal

    My family was one of the many caught up in the original AT&T / Cingular Merger, and promptly quit them after we found out we couldn't add my little brother onto our current (read: old AT&T) cell plan (which was $20 per phone per month) unless the entire family got whole new phones and went on a new two-year contract.

    Well, we did... with T-mobile.

    Fast forward to now and almost the entire family has upgraded their phones since -- only one person at a time as opposed to en masse -- and my sister and I are happy as clams with Sidekicks, and even when I traveled to Canada, it never got nuts like this. (In fact, the one thing my boyfriend likes about T-mobile is that when he was traipsing all over Europe, you couldn't swing a charge cable around without hitting a T-mobile tower, so be enjoyed as-good-as-home data service!)

    So... yeah, not surprised.

  • by quazee ( 816569 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @05:59PM (#24904821)
    I guess that about 30% of the carriers' revenue in US are such 'oh shit' charges (on a lesser scale, of course).
  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jabithew ( 1340853 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:09PM (#24904943)

    Roaming is something of a scandal over here in the EU, where we pay astonishing fees to use our phones a couple of hundred miles away with the same company we're signed on to at home. The European Commission has acted against roaming charges before now. [bbc.co.uk]

    In a similar case recently, a woman was charged £4900(c. US$10000 at the time) by Vodafone because she used a 3g internet connection to watch the Apprentice on iPlayer from France. Vodafone waived the charges in the end.

  • by hack slash ( 1064002 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:16PM (#24905021)
    Why can't mobile phones (& GPRS modem software for that matter) have the ability to pre-warn you how much the call is going to cost per minute before you press the dial button?

    When you buy a product from a bricks'n'mortar or online store you're told up-front how much it's going to cost before you get out your cash/credit card/PayPal password
    But not with mobile phones, usually you're either told just after the call ends how much credit you have left on your pay-as-you-go account or at the end of the month when your contract bill arrives in the post.
  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by squidfood ( 149212 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:33PM (#24905177)

    I blame the fine print.

    When I got iphone it had international roaming turned off by default, with a specific warning along the lines of "if you turn this on, you may get fees." It seems pretty straightforward to me and it would take an informed click-through to activate it (I think?).

  • AT&T is no longer the old AT&T, because the name was sold [att.com] to SBC. My understanding is that the SBC trademark was worse than useless because the company is so abusive. So, the managers decided to use another name.

    Those interested in how that happened can watch Stephen Colbert explain in a 1 minute 14 second video: The New AT&T [google.com].
  • Re:Disgusted (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pantero Blanco ( 792776 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:36PM (#24905213)

    Yes, because everyone needs to be treated like a two year-old. No, we can't expect people to act like adults and be responsible for their own actions.

    I don't think giving someone notice once their monthly phone bill is approaching $1000 due to a handful of glorified roaming charges is "treating them like a two-year old".

    Rational people aren't going to think that sending an email is going to cost them thousands of dollar just because they're out of the country. It's email, for crying out loud.

    Imagine getting a receipt at a restaurant for thousands of dollars due to a few tea refills. If you're ordering some sort of special tea that costs that much, you'd expect someone to tell you, right? Would you accept it if they pointed to some fine print at the bottom of the back of the menu?

    Now, from the article:

    An AT&T representative said they're treating the matter seriously and looking into it. According to the company, they hope to have an answer for the family in the next few days.

    It looks like AT&T is going to be sensible about this. That's a good thing. Remember how people kill people, and sometimes themselves? Getting fine-printed into thousands of dollars of debt is one of the things that can cause that. They'll probably kick it down to something the family is actually able to pay without selling their house or draining their kids' college funds.

  • by hurfy ( 735314 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:38PM (#24905225)

    I believe when i looked these plans up a couple days ago (slashdot is a tad slow again) you have to add an '5GB north american data plan'

    That 5GB is still US only however. The 'North American' portion is 100MB of data they add on. This ONLY costs $49 more than the 5GB US plan !! Almost twice as much to be able to send a few emails home. Pretty sad when stamps are cheaper than your email...Burn to CD and overnight your letter and photos home. How long to use up 100MB surfing slashdot i wonder...

    10 to 1 says rep does not spell this out very well if you call and ask about it. How many of these plans could they sell if they did?

    at&t will ask for $2000 and settle for $200 and still make over 50% what do you bet? Nice business model if you have the balls.

    PS. Please use Vancouver B.C. to refer to that other Vancouver ;)

  • Unless.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tmack ( 593755 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:39PM (#24905245) Homepage Journal
    ..they use Verizon Math [chopstork.com]

    Then at 0.15cents, it should be 10x what you said, or 10G... unless he was doing some heavy torrenting, I doubt that adds up. 1Gb itself is quite a bit of data for an aircard/evdo thing to do, as slow as they are. And with only 21 uses of it, thats a good bit of data: ~51Mb per session avg., which with normal speeds around 200k, ~25KB/s, would be 34Mins of constant full bandwidth usage per session, 12Hrs total, but probably 3-4x or more that time realistically.

    Granted, I do not agree that its "AT&T's responsibility" to notify them that the card is seeing usage, but it probably is in AT&T's best interest to avoid problems like this, or what the family suggested: stolen card.


  • by mabhatter654 ( 561290 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:43PM (#24905277)

    I thought cell phones ran credit checks... don't customers have a credit limit like a credit card would have? Why are the telcos allowing such huge overages over what plan you are credit approved for? They know your credit score and reasonable limit,why are they not following that on these cell plans?

    This is like the old-school days when mechanics would have you sign to "fix" your car, then replace the parts with 10x what they costed and huge labor costs then not let you have your car back... in response we passed law saying they had to tell you charges BEFORE work started and return the used parts. Expecting telcos to honor the credit checks they perform should be expected as ethical behavior.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jlarocco ( 851450 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @06:58PM (#24905411) Homepage

    I just want to clarify. You're saying the people should tell AT&T, "Sorry we can't pay the bill, we're too stupid to read the contract we agreed to."

    That's more or less what you're getting at, right?

  • by mpicker0 ( 411333 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:04PM (#24905463)

    Why don't phones show you, in a clear, unambiguous area on the display (not buried 6 menus deep) exactly how much you will owe on your next bill? Or in the case of prepaid plans, how much is left on the plan? Most companies have a service where you can send a text to a certain number, which you have to remember (and pay for). So, they seem technically able to figure this number out in realtime. Why not show it to you by default?

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:12PM (#24905523)

    Telecoms don't have good mechanisms to help you manage the bill because they don't want to have such mechanisms. Probably 15 or so years ago I watched a company try to sell fraud detection systems to cellular carriers without success. Although their systems were quite affordable and worked splendidly by simply detecting and alerting on unexpected calling patterns, cell carriers had no interest in them.

    Why not, you ask. Simple, they saw no financial benefit in reducing fraud. As the incremental cost of a minute of cellular airtime to a carrier is essentially zero, if a customer suffered some level of fraud and didn't notice and paid the bill, the company profited. If the customer did notice and the bill was adjusted, the company wrote off the list price of the calls (not the incremental cost) as an income tax business loss, paid lower taxes, and won again.

    They apply the same financial logic to other billing issues which is why they're really not interested in letting you apply a variety of limiting parameters to your account. You should be able to, for example, provide them a list of localities you do call and have them block calls to the rest of the world. Or maybe a list of numbers you call and a PIN you have to enter to call any other numbers. You can't do these things because they don't want you to.


  • Re:Apple? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by electrictroy ( 912290 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:28PM (#24905669)

    Actually it was only about a year ago that a woman DID get a humongous Iphone bill.

    Steve Jobs did nothing. But the attention of the local TV station did eventually make AT&T feel guilty, so they let the young lady off the hook.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by blackest_k ( 761565 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:32PM (#24905713) Homepage Journal

    I don't know how it works in the usa but in the uk at least, phone companies have credit limits for contract phone users. If you exceed your limit they ask you to make a payment before you can make outgoing calls again.

    The negatives the Credit limit is regularly revised and raised provided you pay your bill on time, with the only way of getting it held or lowered to pay your bills late. (which messes with your credit rating)

    In theory you shouldn't end up with a bill that you can't pay, (want to pay is a different matter).

    personally I prefer to use a local pay as you go sim card, or take advantage of things like 3 mobiles "like home" where you pay the same as at home however be warned if while abroad you lose the 3 sister network and move on to a partner network international roaming rates apply on incoming and out going calls.

    This being slashdot I'm sure someone can come up with an asterisk system which would forward calls to which ever number you are on.

  • by cortesoft ( 1150075 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @07:48PM (#24905851)
    It is because it isn't costing them the 20 grand if the customer doesn't pay. They do a credit check because they are giving you the loan of the phone, which is paid off over time. Their marginal costs for the 20k worth of service was minuscule (i am guessing pennies) so it isn't necessary to cut the service to prevent a bigger loss. If they pay, great pure profit; if they don't, they are out a couple pennies.
  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @08:18PM (#24906109) Homepage

    Ok - I signed a cell phone contract. I know that it gives the phone company the right to:

    1. Charge me huge fees for non-routine items like data transfer - especially outside of a coverage area. And it might not be obvious if I'm outside that coverage area.

    2. Require binding arbitration of any disputes.

    3. Require me to keep secret any settlement or judgment I get against the phone company so that others don't realize that they can win in court.

    That doesn't make any of that legal. I never "agreed" with anybody on those terms. I just signed them because otherwise I can't use a cell phone (or just about any other convenience of modern life). If the agreement said that if I got too far behind on my payments they could take me into slavery I'd probably still have signed it - knowing full well what it meant.

    Big corporations basically lie about being interested in customer service. Consumers basically lie about agreeing to the terms of service. Courts end up trying to find the middle ground. Not all contracts ought to be enforcable.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lightversusdark ( 922292 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:07PM (#24906473) Journal
    I received a bill for £10,115 in February this year from T-Mobile UK.
    I travel extensively for my work, and have regularly hit my "credit cap", which I believe is around the £600 mark. This normally entails paying the bill two or three times a month over the phone to keep outbound service (and GPRS - when I am switched to incoming only, my service is restricted to GSM, so mail stops coming to my BlackBerry).

    I have had bills of £2000-£3000/month before, but this was astronomical and wholly unexpected. It turns out that it was almost all data usage (about £350/day), and it was the GPS application on my BlackBerry (8800) downloading map data on the fly. The BlackBerry GPS app and Google Maps do not cache maps on your handheld, and will run in the background if merely "exited" as opposed to "closed", so beware!

    My response was to ask why my "credit cap" hadn't kicked in, and the explanation offered was that partner networks do not provide daily updates on roaming data use, instead providing weekly or monthly totals - i.e. T-Mobile didn't know how much I had run up until the end of the month.
    I stated my position clearly - that I would not pay, I would attend a court if they attempted to force me to pay, I would not retain a lawyer and the entirety of my defence would be: "They want £10,000 for one months service".

    I explained that I would, if pushed, demonstrate that these were disproportionate charges, and the repercussions of bringing such a case against me could be severe.
    I displayed my intent by emailing recordings of my conversations with customer reps to Jim Hyde, the MD of T-Mobile UK, which included such gems as "Well you are entitled to a discount on data within the EU, but that obviously doesn't include Brussels."
    We settled for £3,500.

    I then made it my business to find a contract which includes unlimited international data.
    Not one of the UK networks will offer this in a consumer tariff, and in the end it was only O2 who said to me: "Oh you can add that as a "Bolt-On" to any business contract for £20/month.
    No other company offers anything like unlimited roaming data, and I was shocked at how cheap it was to do. It has slashed my bills by literally thousands of pounds, to say nothing of the savings on hotel and airport internet.

    As an aside, O2 is the UK partner network for the iPhone - but there is no iPhone "business" tariff that will allow you to bolt on international roaming as I have done with the BlackBerry. Not too troubling until they provide above-board tethering anyway.

    And as a final note, will somebody please sort out the £ sign when posting from the AJAX box!
  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Toll_Free ( 1295136 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:27PM (#24906611)

    I'm sorry, any idiot that signed a loan agreement that they couldn't pay back should be held full accountable for what they did.

    After all, it was THEIR action that caused THEIR plight.

    Not to say that other circumstances didn't help the problem come about the way it did (the lendors where BEGGING for these loans to be picked up and sold and resold), but the bottom line is this, you probably shouldn't sign something you don't understand.

    San Diego is having a REALLY hard time in that all the contracts where in English. Now the "homeowners" are coming forth stating they didn't know what they where signing, since they don't speakah-duh-English. Of course, when the case was ready to go to court, they found out it was bi-lingual Hispanics selling these loans to friends.

    Yup, they deserve as much of a bailout as the Nazi's.


  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:40PM (#24906713)

    The funny thing is that the guy was in Vancouver, so he was using Rogers. Rogers charges Americans roaming in Canada LESS for data than they charge Canadians who are not roaming.

    The bill would have been MUCH higher if he lived in Vancouver.

  • by puregen1us ( 648116 ) <alex@Nospam.alexwasserman.com> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @10:18PM (#24906945)

    Last Xmas we went back to the UK to see family. We live in NYC. My wife has an iPhone and uses it religiously. She hit $1000 pretty easily in the UK, but at that point ATT sent us a text, and cut off the data service, leaving the voice service on.

    That seemed a pretty sensible default to me.

    Similarly, when I had a UK cell phone with Vodafone on vacation I've received messages asking me to call to confirm my high phone usage and charges when I hit 2-3 hundred pounds sterling (~$500 maybe).

    I can't imagine why ATT didn't alert them in this case.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by orangesquid ( 79734 ) <orangesquid@noSPAm.yahoo.com> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @11:27PM (#24907355) Homepage Journal

    Having a phone is nearly a necessity for the modern world (how do you call out sick when you can't place calls?), and often a landline just does not cut it (need to be locatable 24/7?), unless you want to have both a landline and a pager (plus, what good is a pager when fortress phones are getting harder and harder to find?).

    I think there should be some legal restrictions to discourage the excessive use of "fine print." (For example: All wording on a contract must be legible to someone with 20/20 vision at a distance of two feet, or the contract is not enforceable.) A silly law? Well, yes, but when corporations choose to behave in a silly way, the only way to try to maintain some semblance of fairness is usually through silly laws.

    (While we're on the subject, how about requiring contracts to be at a 12th-grade reading level or below to be enforceable? "Use a dictionary," "ask your English-major friend for clarification," you say? I say, "Oh, miss Cingular rep handing me something to sign, go fetch a dictionary for me, pronto. And, while you're away from your desk, I'm going to borrow your phone to call an English major I know." On a computer, you might have a dictionary at your disposal 24/7---in real life, you should not be expected to carry one for day-to-day affairs if you have a high-school level of education!)

    If the legal term for signing a contract is going to continue to be "contract negotiation," rather than "bending over and letting a corporation stick it to you without any lube," I would like more emphasis on the *negotiation*.

    "Okay, miss Cingular rep. Now, I'll sign your paper if you'll sign mine saying that, before you charge me more than 50% above my minimum monthly pay ment, someone from Cingular is expected to receive confirmation from me *in writing* that I acknowledge and am fully aware of the additional charges. See, this is called NEGOTIATION. You have your terms, I have mine."

    Oh, attn large corporations: you would not have to re-invent yourselves as "the new ____" (ex. the new AT&T) if people felt they could trust "the old ____." Let your PR branch drool over that for a while, eh?

    [Disclaimer: I am very careful about signing contracts, and have been known to (inadvertently) annoy whoever is asking me to sign something for hours and hours on end until they clarify every detail of the fine print. I have not yet reached the point of asking if I can tape record their explanations of the fine print, but that's just because I have not yet been forced to that point! *g*]

  • cancel (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 07, 2008 @12:30AM (#24907669)

    Cancel your account and cut your loss. there is no way at&t will ever get that money.

  • Re:Disgusted (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Pantero Blanco ( 792776 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @12:48AM (#24907737)

    This attitude is why your American health care sucks, why your American school system sucks, why your American news media sucks, etc. etc. You have no sense of community, of sharing the burdens of life.

    [redneck American voice] "sense of community"? "sharing the burdens of life"? You sound like one 'o them thar' Godless Commernists! We don't want your kind around here! Gawd told us to invade I-Rak and Gawd's a-tellin' me ta shoot ya with my second amendment shawtgun. [/redneck American voice]

    "Rednecks" are a hell of a lot more likely to look out for each other than urbanites and the suburbanites who flee them. Seriously, go to Houston, Detroit, or LA and see how much of a "sense of community" there is. Don't forget your second-amendent shotgun; you'll need it more there than you will in Kennesaw, Georgia.

    If you go to a Waffle House in the middle of the night, and casually start talking about this with one of the guys you think of as "rednecks", they probably won't support AT&T. There's a reason that political ads use the "family" angle.

  • Re:Disgusted (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @01:14AM (#24907825) Homepage

    Are there any other parts of living where something that usually costs 60 dollars per month can suddenly balloon out to 20,000 dollars per month without explicit user intervention? Even credit cards call you when usage patterns start looking strange.

    Of course, the real problem is that people are getting *horribly* overcharged for international data roaming. I'm sorry, AT&T charges twenty dollars per MB in Canada. Telus charges just 1.7 dollars, and that's considered ripping off. AT&T charges Thirty dollars per MB in the UK, whereas Vodafone charges between 1c and 2 dollars (depending on plan). I don't care if an AT&T representative is taking a personal flight to London for each customer, setting up their wireless network, getting a few too many pints outside the Tate Modern, and flying back, it shouldn't have a 10,000% markup.

    Personally, I think that by law users should have to opt-in to these ridiculous international rates while being shown what competing costs in that territory are and how to contact those vendors. Rates like these are just abusing the system to make a buck (or 20 thousand).

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by toetagger ( 642315 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @03:14AM (#24908247)
    In Europe, you get an SMS when you connect to a roaming network that tells you how much it costs per minut to call back home, and how much it costs to be called while abroad. It also lists a number where you can send an SMS to (free of charge) to find out the current cost of making a phone call from where you are.
  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hektor_Troy ( 262592 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @03:45AM (#24908339)

    That's a very interesting stance. Especially considering that visitors to the US have to fill out that weird sheet which has the following question:

    "Do you intend to do anything illegal or immoral while in the US?"

    It's a yes/no question, which is rather annoying. While people in New York might find it immoral for me to use the services of a prostitute in Nevada, it's not illegal. So ... which one do I cross off?

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Bottlemaster ( 449635 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @04:58AM (#24908495)

    Unfortunately, unethical behaviour does not necessarily correspond to illegal behaviour.

    Unfortunately? Are you stupid or something?

    I'd consider my previous remark unethical. Whether or not you are actually stupid, it's unethical for me to berate you for your idiotic comment, as you may be sensitive about your intellectual shortcomings. It serves no good end and is pure meanness. If my actions should be illegal, what punishment do you recommend? A fine? Community service? Imprisonment?

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @06:49AM (#24908807) Journal

    We also do not have 70% tax rates like Europeans have (ours are 35-40%)

    Nice straw man. Income tax in the UK is 20%, with an extra 10% national insurance (which covers social security things, and is optional, although you can't claim a state pension unless you've been paying it for 30 years). In terms of total tax paid by the average citizen, the UK has a lower tax burden than the USA (Google it - study published around 18 months ago). When you factor in the fact that few people pay for health insurance here, it works out even cheaper. Only a few countries in the EU have tax rates anywhere near 70%, and even those are the top bracket - people don't start paying that rate except on income earned well above the median.

    But, please, don't let your tax-and-spend government get in the way of your libertarian rant.

  • Re:Oh Noes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tompaulco ( 629533 ) on Sunday September 07, 2008 @09:30AM (#24909683) Homepage Journal
    what they shouldn't have done is offer the 80/20 loans with no PMI.
    PMI is a big scam. It is insurance for the banks, but YOU have to pay it. Heck, I could be paying my mortgage down another couple of hundred per month if it wasn't for the insurance I have to pay to cover the banks butt. And I've never missed a payment, yet my premium stays the same. PMI is a scam that was lobbied for by the lenders and made law by the government as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since you have to pay more money than you should have to for the loan, you are more likely to need the PMI. My PMI payment is about 15% of my P&I amount. Incredible!
    I know, you are saying "why not put 20% down"? Well, this was right after Osama destroyed the economy, and I was out of work, sold my cars, sold my house, lived off of credit cars, and was just getting back into a house. I put down 10% and the bank qualified me for a 80/10 loan with my 10% to make the PMI unnecessary. But two days before the closing, they converted it to an 85% loan and I had to come up with 15% down, which meant dipping into friends and relatives money (which you technically can't do, but what can you do in such a situation). Of course, they made it an 85% loan and not 80% because at 80% I wouldn't have had to pay PMI and they wouldn't get their kickback or whatever from the PMI company.
    I should have told them to go spit and found another mortgage company, but by that point my Mom had sold her house that we were living in (she was going to move in with us) so we had nowhere to go and the mortgage company knew they could screw us.

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