Grandmother fights $10,000 phone bill

Opal Savage, a Charlotte grandmother and retired nurse, says she was shocked when her Verizon Wireless bill looked more like the down payment for a small house.

The $10,539.72 bill was mostly for about six weeks of calls to Secret Encounters, an adult chat line based in St. Georges, Granada.

She said she's not responsible for the calls and that the number must have been stolen. She's been fighting with Verizon for more than a year.

Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Verizon Wireless wouldn't talk to the Observer specifically about the case but said in correspondence to Savage that the calls were made from her phone.

Savage believes the phone company had a duty to block the calls or call her when the bill reached into the thousands, in the same way some credit card companies deny suspect and out-of-the-ordinary transactions.

Her monthly bill was normally about $250, she said. She has since switched to another phone company.

Savage bought the phone for her two grandsons, then 13 and 17, in case of an emergency. She insists they couldn't have made the calls, which occurred over about six weeks in fall 2006. In affidavits, the two have sworn they didn't place the calls. She lives in Charlotte and they live in Clinton, S.C., south of Spartanburg.

She believes she has a good case and that it's clear from the pattern of calling her family didn't do it.

According to copies of the bills, most of the calls originated from Greenwood and Laurens, S.C., between 15 and 30 miles from the grandsons' Clinton home, she said. The grandsons only had bikes and lived too far away to have made the calls, she said. The calls were also made all through the night and into the early morning, when the boys were at home in bed, she said.

Some calls overlap in time and were placed from different cities, but only minutes apart, she said. And “no single person could stay on the phone that many hours in a day,” she said.

The charges were from Secret Encounters for about $1.50 a minute. One 85-minute call cost $125.16, according to the bill. Another call cost $105.79 for 71 minutes.

Savage has studied how wireless phones and systems work and has a basket in her living room filled with paperwork related to her dispute. She hired a lawyer, and now, $5,000 in legal bills later, she sticks with the case on principle, she said. She filed a police report last week in Clinton.

According to an e-mail provided by Savage, Verizon offered to settle in July for $3,400, the amount the calls would total under a different calling plan. She declined the offer.

Phone companies licked the past problem of “cloned” numbers snatched from the airways, but there are new ways to steal numbers, said Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications industry analyst based in Atlanta. He said it's possible to steal and use another person's phone number without physically having access to the phone. Advances in telephone hardware are making it easier, he said.

“As the phone starts looking more like a personal computer, with pictures and streaming video and access to the Web, it can leave you open.”

He said wireless companies need to protect consumers better and start notifying them or temporarily suspending numbers when there are unusual calling patterns.