I got myself a new phone card.

My old phone card, through MCI, had been charging me an arm and a leg, which was sort of OK, but the rates rose to the point where they were charging three limbs of their choice, and I finally decided it was time to actually do something about the situation.

So I check around the websites of various phone companies, and find good rates on AT&T's site.

There's heaps of competition (and, therefore, good prices to be had) on long distance calls within the US, made from your home phone; but the number of such calls I have made over the three and a bit years I have been in the US can be counted on the fingers of zero hands, so this doesn't particularly help me.

I usually make international calls, sometimes from points outside the US, and the few domestic calls that I make are from hotels back to home, to tell Lori that I made it in OK. So I need a calling card, with good international rates. The AT&T web site assures me that their rates are about a tenth that of MCI.

So I phone them up. I get bounced around inside their phone system for a bit, by various representatives telling me that they will transfer me to the right person, or that I should hang up and call this number, and it's really the right number to call this time, and eventually wind up connected to the number for calling cards for US servicemen. This is odd, as I am not, to my knowledge, affiliated in any way with the military; but nevertheless, the representative thinks she can help me. Who am I to argue.

The web site lists $0.15 per minute for calls from the US to the UK; but as I'm going to make a bunch of my calls from the UK, I ask the representative for the rate from England to the US. She puts me on hold. For a considerable amount of time. Eventually she comes back, "We don't serve England, sir." Now, I know she does, because I saw the rates for calls to the UK on the web siteÖ the penny drops. "How about calls from the UK?", I ask. This is a much easier question. "Eight cents a minute," she replies. I thank her, and we move on. It is only later that I realise that this is less than the rate from US to UK, and is therefore very likely wrong.

She take all my details and so forth, and then explains that in order to serve me better, their system for actually getting the card to me is completely screwed up at the moment, and it will be several weeks before I receive the card.

In several weeks, I will be in England.

But that's OK, because all you need to make the phone card work is the access number for the country you're in, and the card number, which is printed on the front of the phone card. So I leave instructions with my house mates to email me the number when the card arrives. They do so. I immediately use the card to call them back, to see if it works. It does.

Some days later, I use the card to call another number in England, because I'm at a public phone which has already eaten all my coins. Instead of being immediately connected, I am told to hold for an operator. The operator explains that I am not yet authorised for international calls to the UK, and gets some details from me (name, last four digits of social security number, date of birth). Having received these, she seems happy, and connects the call.

"International"? I'm calling from the UK, to, wait for it, the UK. Evidently AT&T regard calls from the UK to the US as domestic (they never asked me for authentication on that one), but calls within the UK as international. Very strange.

I continue to use the card, and the first time I call Australia with it, I am again told to hold for an operator. I give over the relevant info (name, rank, serial number), and I am connected. Fair enough: a call from the UK to Australia would generally be regarded as international. But the second time I call Oz, I am again asked to hold for authentication. Surely I've already authenticated? It leaves me on hold for a bit, and then I guess it gets bored or something, because it goes ahead and connects my call without me having to give up any details to an operator at all (name, grandmother's maiden name, pet dog's shoe size).

These initial authentication incidents aside, the card works fine; except in Finland, where because I was too rushed to find the access number before I left, I had to wait until I had internet access to find it out before I made any calls. I'm surprised that there are any public telephones at all in Finland Ė 100% of the population carry cell phones. Nevertheless, the shopping centre I was in did in fact have a bank of three public phones, as shiny and new as the day they were installed.

And except in Marseilles, where the phone in my hotel room was pulse dial. Retro tech or what.

So I get back to the US, and I start to wonder when my billing statement is going to turn up.

I've had the card over a month, and presumably they bill monthly, and also presumably if I don't find out what's going on with these statements, then AT&T will eventually get all annoyed and cut me off. So I give them a call.

"Your call is important to us. That's why we're leaving you on hold for the next twenty minutes." At least they have some nice classical hold music.

I talk to a representative, who says that my first bill was only for a couple of dollars, so maybe the computer just didn't bother to issue one; and my second bill was sent just a couple of days ago, and may therefore not yet have wended its way through US Snail to me. She suggests that I wait a day or two and see what happens.

A day or two duly waited, I call back and enquire again. This time, as I step through with the representative and double check my mailing address details, she notices that they do not have my apartment number listed. (The previous rep failed to spot this.) My previous two statements have, therefore, vanished into the black hole that is the apartment complex office. She corrects the address, and promises to send me another bill.

This is all rather odd, as the original card arrived to my correct address just fine. Somehow between issuing the card and issuing the billing statements, my address got partially trashed. (Can't you just feel the lines of COBOL code, creaking and groaning behind the scenes?)

In due course, this bill arrives. It is a reproduction of my original bill, using some charmingly obsolescent technology like microfiche or microfilm or something. It is black and white (well, black and grey, really), slightly fuzzy, and although the original contains phrases like "Continues on back", this duplicate is printed single-sided. Nevertheless, all the page numbers are there. Since it is a reproduction of my original bill, the address at the top still lacks my apartment number, but it reached me by being sealed inside an envelope that was addressed correctly.

The bill amount is $453.62.

$441.43 of this is calls; at $0.15 per minute, that's about two days solid.

Page 3 conveniently contains a section labeled "AT&T calling card calls", for an itemised listing of my calls. Somewhat less conveniently, this section is blank.

So I call them back.

The representative I talk to explains that the original representative had made some mistakes. Firstly, she had quoted me the wrong rate for calls from the UK: the correct rate is not and has never been, she tells me, $0.08 per minute. The rate from US to UK is in fact $0.13 per minute. (I later double-check this against the web site. It has changed since last time I looked, and now says $0.10 per minute.) Secondly, the original rep had neglected to put me on a plan. This means that the system has been charging me $7.54 for the first minute, and $2.47 per minute thereafter, hence causing the extraordinary bill. She puts me on the correct plan, and changes the total due on my bill, to $14.55. This strikes me as being too far in the other direction, and I tell the rep as much. She doesn't want to hear it; she's pretty sure she accidentally credited me too much, but doesn't want to go through the whole rigmarole of getting it right. I get a clue, and shut up.

So, I ask, should I pay $14.55 on the current bill, or what? No, she explains, she will get the system to send me out a fresh bill, and I can pay on that one.

Note, by the way, that AT&T are not particularly set up to handle credit card payments: you can only pay by check (that's a cheque in the real world) or money order. This is very clever, because credit card payments can be made by phone whereas cheque payments cannot. It obviously wouldn't do for a phone company to let their customers pay by phone. Nevertheless, they do have a system whereby you can phone them up and promise to send them a cheque. (I am unclear as to how this helps.) And they also have an online payment system, where you can give their computer your credit card details, and it gives you statements online and stuff. But in enrolling in this system, you give up paper statements -- everything is completely at the whim of AT&T's computer system, with no hope of tracking whatsoever. And given the vagaries that I have already discovered in this system, this would seem an unwise option.

So I wait for the new bill to arrive.

A new bill does arrive, but it's a duplicate of the last one, in all its grey fuzzy glory.

So I wait again.

In due course, I receive a phone call from AT&T, at about 8 o'clock at night. (This is odd, as I'm in most days.) "Please hold for an important call", says the machine on the other end. "Please hold. I'm still trying to connect you. Please hold." It repeats itself a few times, and a representative from the billing department eventually appears on the line. She asks me if I would care to explain why my account is overdue and over limit. I do so explain, which takes substantially longer than she expected.

She pulls up my details. (It seems that the overdue billing computer connects the reps with customers without first giving the reps a chance to look over the customer's actual history. I imagine that these reps therefore manage to make fools of themselves in front of customers on quite a regular basis.) She sees the change in calling plan, which at least partly vindicates my story, but tells me that she is powerless to change anything. She will have to forward me to a customer service representative, and would I mind holding?

We hold for quite a while. You would think that people within the AT&T system would have some sort of priority access to reps in other departments, but no. That might make sense or something. Note that she has to hold too: she has to pass my story on to the customer service rep, so that he can properly help me. So she sits on hold waiting for an AT&T rep, while other AT&T customers are presumably sitting on hold waiting for her. It's all terribly clever.

I tell the whole story again to the next rep. He sees the $400-and-some credit back to my bill. I explain that several reps ago, a rep promised to send me a new bill. We chat about this for a while. Then I am struck by a question: why, I ask, if he can see a $400-some credit to my account, did the billing rep think my account was still $450 in the red? A clever question, and he cleverly responds by hanging up.

Well, not really; in all probability it was something in the AT&T phone system which dropped the connection, rather than him deliberately ending the call. (It must be noted that a phone company whose internal customer service phone system is dodgy is probably projecting a less than sterling image to its customers.)

This dance repeats three more times. The AT&T billing computer calls me, asks me to hold, and puts me on with a representative who knows nothing about my case. The representative asks me why I havenít paid, and I explain. Itís terribly clever, the way the system repeatedly connects me with people to whom it hasnít given complete information, so that they can look stupid in front of the customer not just once, but multiple times. The fourth time this happens, the rep puts a note in the computer telling it that it should probably stop calling me. I wonder to myself as to why none of the first three reps thought of doing this.

I no longer bother to have the billing reps transfer me to someone who might be able to actually help; this adds needless complexity. Instead, I call them directly myself. The rep that I eventually speak to tells me that the correct procedure would be for me to pay the money AT&T think I owe them, then wait for AT&T to post the credit to my account. I can then phone them, and ask them to issue an actual refund check. It seems highly likely, however, that by the time they post the credit, I will have already left the country. I respectfully decline.

I plan, instead, to wait. Perhaps by the time my next statement arrives, they will have posted the credit.

When the next statement arrives, I have in fact left the country. Heather opens it for me, and confirms that AT&T are still in no danger of gaining a clue: the bill is for $424.99. She sends the bill along to me in Australia, along with several other items of mail.

One of the other items of mail is a letter from AT&T, describing my account as "seriously past due", and "severely delinquent". It gives a date by which I absolutely definitely must make payment. Due to the delay in getting my mail redelivered from the US to Australia, this date is in the past. It gives me a convenient 800 number to call if I which to discuss my account further. For my further convenience, this number only works from inside the US. To make things even more convenient, AT&T are not listed in the Australian phone book. Being prepared, however, I already have a copy of their Australian access number; so I call it, and talk to an operator. The operator transfers me to a representative. The rep tells me that the balance on my account is now $20. This is stunning. Somewhere between the 3.5-month mark and the 4.5-month mark, AT&T have apparently managed to post the promised credit. I am too frightened to ask whether that $20 is plus or minus.

I give the rep my new address in Australia, and hang up. Too late I realise that this was probably extremely stupid -- a change of address is something that they can screw up, thus dragging the whole procedure out for even longer.

And thatís exactly what they do. So I call them to find out why Iím not receiving bills. The operator transfers me to the customer care centre, who transfer me to the residential billing centre, who transfer me to the direct billed card centre, which declares that Iím not coming in from an area code which it knows about, and hangs up on me. On the second attempt the operator transfers me to another operator, who transfers me to the military direct billed card centre, who actually deign to speak to me; unlike their non-military cousin. The rep tells me that my November bill was returned to them, and that no more statements would be sent until they were able to confirm my address. It may be noted that the only mechanism for achieving such verification is waiting for the customer to call them. This seems a less than brilliant scheme.

We carefully step through my address and verify it. It seems good. I suspect, however, that the address on her screen is mangled in some way that seems perfectly plausible to an American, but will cause mail delivery to fail inside Australia. Just what such a mangling might be, I donít know; but I can form no other hypothesis for the mail bounce. Unless, perhaps, AT&Tís computer is insufficiently bright to send international mail with international postage. The rep assures me that the computer will now make another attempt to bill me, on the next business day.

The attempt fails. I wait a month or so, and call them again. The bill has indeed been returned undelivered to AT&T. We step through my address once again, and once again the operator claims that it is wonderfully correct. The only new wrinkle is that this time, the operator is brusque to the point of rudeness. She implies that the only possible reason that AT&T would be unable to deliver a bill to me is some problem in the Australian mail system, for which I should be held personally accountable. When I inquire as to the magnitude of the bill (currently standing at $448.29), she haughtily informs me that I made the calls, and I should therefore be responsible for paying for them.

I call a week or so later, to see if the latest attempt at bill delivery has bounced yet; but it hasn't. I'm doing this in order to attempt to gain insight into the bounce problem by seeing how long a bounce takes: if it takes only a week or so, then it's probably occurring inside the US; if it takes three weeks or so then it's probably occurring inside Australia. But apparently it was a long weekend, so only three business days have transpired since my last call.

And then I give up. The rudeness of the last-rep-but-one has left a sour taste, and has put me off this whole game. What do I care anyway? What are they going to do, put a black mark on my U.S. credit history?

Then, two months later, something deeply improbable happens: I receive a bill from AT&T.

I'm flabbergasted.

It is postmarked substantially more than a month after the date of my last request for a re-send of my bill. It has a correct address on the front, and inside it contains grey fuzzy reproductions of all my missing statements except September. An examination of the last couple of statements reveals the nature of the mail misdelivery: it shows my correct name, street name and number and suburb; but fails to mention my country. US Mail has thus been attempting to deliver my mail to an imaginary address within the United States, and (unsurprisingly), has been failing. The address also has my four-digit Australian postcode neatly converted to a five-digit American zipcode by the simple expident of adding a zero. The mechanism by which two separate operators can have read the address back to me as if it were correct remains mysterious; as does the mechanism via which the computer can have magically fixed the problem, and decided to send me mail. I suspect that the address was shown correctly on the rep's screens, but was printed wrong on the bill by some creaking COBOL relic; and that the reissued bill was sent to me by a different computer than the one that has consistently been mangling my address.

Now that I have the statements in front of me, I am also able to discover why my bill has managed to stay up in the hundreds of dollars despite the credit. The representative who spotted the original error back in June did manage to credit me $437.80, but did not manage to put me on the correct plan. The system was still charging me $1.43 per minute for calls to the UK, a mere 11 times the quoted rate. Thus, by the time AT&T had managed to send me a bill, I had run up another $400 of calls at this new incorrect rate.

I call AT&T up again, doing the usual operator - representative - representative dance to get to someone from the right department, and explain what is going on. They explain to me that there is only one person in the department who can help me, and that she's already left for the day. I am assured that if I leave my contact details, she will call me back.

She doesn't. So I call again. This time the rep I speak to thinks that she can help me, and we try to go through some of the problems on the bill. A fresh problem emerges: the AT&T computer keeps copies of bills going back only 6 months. Thanks to AT&T's grievous inability to send me a bill, most of the calls in question have dropped off the computer's records.

The rep promises to send me a new bill. I explain about the computer's deep incapability of adding the word "Australia" to the bottom of the address. She is unconcerned. This time, she assures me it will be right, it will work, and no-one will have to get nailed to anything.

It isn't right; it doesn't work. The bill never arrives.

AT&T have repeatedly quoted me the wrong rate, charged me the wrong rate, and corrupted my address. With most businesses, you don't have a choice about payment of a bill -- you have to pay, or they chase you down. Here, it's the other way around -- I cannot choose to pay this bill because AT&T have evaded my best efforts to chase them down. After a year of trying, I admit defeat in my attempts to pay AT&T the money I owe them.