Skeptical Shopper: Punishing Consumers for Paper Billing

When a company announces that it's taking steps to "green" its business, I usually applaud. But when T-Mobile and other tech service companies announced that they would begin charging customers for paper bills, under the guise of instituting more-sustainable practices, I was doubtful. Would the tactic help save the environment, or was it just a convenient way to tack on extra charges?

In August, T-Mobile stated that it would start charging customers who wished to receive paper bills via mail a $1.50 monthly fee. The wireless company was already charging $2 monthly for printed itemized, detailed bills--so customers who preferred getting printed, itemized bills in the mail would now have to send T-Mobile an extra $42 per year.

Following the announcement, angry customers swarmed the forums at T-Mobile.com, accusing the company of taking advantage of older customers who might not have access to the Internet. Many complained that the T-Mobile billing site was slow and difficult to use.

Fortunately, T-Mobile caved in to the pressure. As we were going to press, the carrier stated on a company Web page that it would not carry out the fees, "for now." The move to rescind the policy is a great example of the power of consumers: They spoke, and T-Mobile listened. Nevertheless, the fact that it had considered the idea is still troubling, as is the statement's language. If not "now," when?

One of the first companies to charge for dead-tree statements was Time Warner Cable in January 2009. On its Web site, the company states, "Time Warner Cable (like many service providers) is committed to moving towards more ‘environmentally friendly' operating practices. We decided that customers who choose to participate in this specific ‘Go Green' initiative should receive a benefit."

What benefit did those customers re­­ceive? Time Warner said that customers who switched to its electronic PayXpress program would receive a $1 "credit"--but the "credit" amounted to not incurring a $1 "Paper Statement Service Charge."

I realize that paper, ink, and envelopes cost money. I know that paper creates waste if it isn't recycled. But inventing a fee that punishes customers for paper bills--while claiming to act out of environmental consciousness--is obnoxious. Want to reward customers who go paperless? Give them discounts.

Pulp Fact and Pulp Fiction

Most of our paper supply comes not from whole trees, but from wood chips and scraps that accumulate at sawmills. Trees that do go directly to pulp mills are grown for that purpose; if they don't end up as phone bills, it isn't as though they'll go on to be­­come majestic forest monarchs instead.

Also, companies seem to assume that customers just glance at bills and then throw them away. Though some people may do that, I suspect that most archive their bills for business or tax purposes.

As matters stand with Time Warner, you'll either have to swallow the extra charges or take steps to regain the benefits of paper bills. One approach is to save your statements as PDF files and print them out as needed. Time Warner customers who have limited Internet access can pay their bill over the phone rather than by mail by calling 800/222-5355.

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