You might call it a friends, family and ID thieves plan.
Last year, identity thieves wormed their way into Michael Carner's Sprint account, tacked on 14 new cell phones and began ringing up phone charges. Even though he reported the intrusion, things only got worse. For nearly a year, the real estate agent was hit with late fees, frequent automated collections calls, service interruptions, and a $5,000 bill.
When Carner finally gave up and tried to cancel his account, Sprint had one more piece of bad news: The imposters had extended his service contract for two years, meaning he'd have to pay a $200 early termination fee to get out of his contract.
"It was just maddening," Carner, who lives in O'Fallon, Mo., said. "Common sense should have prevailed, but it never did. ... I wonder how many other people go through this."
Last month, Sprint was still trying to collect about $250 from him. But after receiving inquiries from msnbc.com, the company reduced the balance to zero.
Sprint officials said they couldn't discuss details of a customer's account, citing privacy issues. But spokeswoman Roni Singleton confirmed the company was investigating the situation.
"When a customer accumulates incorrect charges on their account due to fraud, we will always work with the customer to ensure he or she is not charged for anything more than the appropriate balance," she said in an e-mail. "We are investigating the internal handling of Mr. Carner's situation, and we will work directly with him to resolve any remaining issue."
Carner's fiasco began in February 2007, when someone added the 14 cell phones to his account without his permission. He didn't discover the problem until he was vacationing in Palm Springs two months later.
"I got an automated message from Sprint saying my account was overdue, and if I didn't pay it, 'We'll shut it off,'" he said. "Then it said I had a $3,500 outstanding balance. I called right away and said, 'There must be an accounting error, I never go over $95 a month.' "
Regular service interruptions
Sprint's fraud department spotted the problem immediately, Carner said., but resolving it was another matter.
Sprint began removing fraudulent charges, but only piecemeal. Each month, some fraud charges were refunded, but new ones appeared, and Carner's balance remained at several hundred dollars. Then, the late fees piled up. He wasn't receiving bills – they were going to an address in St. Louis used by the ID thieves -- so he computed the average of his prior 6 months' worth of bills and began sending a check to Sprint for about $95 each month.
He also spent, in total, about 25 hours on the phone getting transferred back and forth between Sprint's fraud department and its billing department, with ample time spent on hold each time.
"That just escalated my blood pressure," he said.
About once each week, he received an automated call from Sprint's collections department, even after he was assured the calls would stop. "That was just harassment," he said.
Worst of all, for a real estate agent who relies heavily on his phone, he suffered regular service interruptions.
He could receive calls, but he couldn't place them -- a common tactic used by cell phone providers to encourage bill payment. "I was exasperated. I need my phone, this was a very serious issue," he said.
ID thief termination fee
At one point, a Sprint operator told him he'd have to pay the remaining fraudulent changes. "We have extended to your account $4,200.00 and there will be no further credits. Pay your balance or we are not reinstating your service," he quoted the operator as saying.
In October, he decided enough was enough and decided to switch cell phone providers. He sent in his last payment of $96 on Nov. 8.
The next month, he received a call saying he still owed $200 because of an early termination fee. Carner thought his contract had expired months earlier, but when he called Sprint he was told the contract had been extended to February 2009 -- two years after the fraud had occurred.
In addition to stealing Carner's identity, the thieves had extended his cell phone contract, he discovered. And Sprint insisted that he had to pay the fee.
"I said to them, 'Produce a signed agreement saying I extended the contract,' but they said they couldn't do that," he said. "I told them 'That's insane. Anybody can extend an agreement on a whim?' "
Bickering over the $200 early termination fee continued through January and February, until Carner contacted msnbc.com. He soon received a call from a "gracious and apologetic" Sprint fraud expert, who immediately eliminated the fee.
Now, Carner says, he's a happy Verizon customer. But he's concerned that other Sprint customers might pay up in a similar situation, just to end the madness.
"Imagine the millions they unjustly collect using these intimidation tactics," he said. "I feel sad and angry for the Sprint masses that find themselves similarly in the middle of an unjust dispute."