If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it really make a sound? If a consumer complaint about cell phones is closed but no one has even read it, will any company care?
The question is not rhetorical. If a consumer feels mistreated by his or her cell phone company, federal law offers the aggrieved person only one court of appeal: the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau. The process is easy and straightforward. Click here, fill out a few online forms, and your complaint is filed.
Easy does not mean effective, however. A study by the Government Accountability Office released last year found that 9 out of 10 times, the FCC simply closes the complaint without taking any action. Worse yet, the government auditors said last year, the FCC can't say why it closed the cases. It doesn't even track that.
The short answer to the question "How do I complain about my cell phone company?" is "Tell the FCC." That's not necessarily the best way, however. So today, in part two of our "How to Complain About" series, we'll describe the formal complaint process and then the effective complaint process.
From mid-2007 to mid-2008 — the most recent period for which data are available — the FCC received 52,823 complaints about wireless companies. They apparently fell on deaf ears.
There's a simple reason for this, said the auditors. The FCC is far more interested in quickly closing cases and generating statistics than in finding out what's going on.
That was my experience late last year when I decided to submit myself to the FCC complaint process. I felt Sprint was overcharging me on my last bill when I canceled my service. On Dec. 5, I filed an online FCC complaint. In mid-January, I received notice that the FCC had opened an "informal" investigation. Soon after, I received a letter from Sprint saying I was wrong. The FCC, which also received the letter, then declared the case closed.
The experience made the FCC seem much more like a re-mailing service than a government agency ready to protect me. After all, I could have sent the letter to Sprint myself. Of course, there was an avenue to appeal my case, but only if I paid a $190 filing fee.
(You can read more about this in "Sprint: Judge and Jury").
Filing an FCC complaint can feel fruitless, but it's still a good idea. Numbers really do matter. A surge in complaints could have a meaningful impact now, with a set of new faces poised to take over as FCC commissioners. Mignon Clyburn of South Carolina was named last week to fill the last remaining opening on the commission. Clyburn, who was a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and is a former newspaper publisher, might be more sympathetic to consumer issues. Now would be a good time to grab her attention and the attention of Julius Genachowski, who was nominated as FCC chairwoman in January. Both are awaiting congressional confirmation. You can do that by filling out the FCC's online complaint form.