With mobile carriers, even dying is a hassle

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The death of a loved one often means equal parts grief and red tape, and mobile phone providers are just one more bureaucracy when it comes to canceling accounts for the deceased.

Sprint customer Dan Ronan found that out the hard way. When his father-in-law died, he contacted his mobile carrier, Sprint, to cancel the account. The customer service rep on the other side of the line was confused at first, but came up with a solution — if Ronan would agree to pay a $100 “early termination fee,” he would close the account.

When Ronan refused to pay the fee, the Sprint rep left him on a lengthy hold. After returning, the rep said that Sprint would waive the fee if Ronan could produce a copy of the death certificate. Ronan questioned whether that was necessary, and after a 10-day runaround that included many pitches for new products and a comically long chat session with a Sprint rep, the matter finally appears to be resolved. But Ronan came away with the sense that Sprint personnel were unprepared to deal with the situation.

“I don’t understand how they can be so unresponsive,” Ronan says. “They don’t seem to be very concerned about making this as easy as possible.”

It seems, at minimum, unkind to put surviving family members through this kind of rigmarole. But Ronan’s experience is consistent with how subscription services handle deceased accountholders in at least one respect: they usually require a copy of the death certificate to cancel the account, says Chuck Marshall, a consumer advocate and attorney with the Marshall Law Firm in Walnut Creek, Calif.

“While it is understandable if people get upset when a wireless carrier demands a death certificate — it seems insensitive — it is also a fairly reasonable request as a fraud prevention measure, and not out of step with other industries,” Marshall says. “That being said, the real problem arises when such a policy meets the aggressive tactics of the carrier’s customer retention center or plain old incompetence.”

Marshall says he’s heard horror stories about “customers faxing in death certificates multiple times, repeated promises to cancel after repeated billing, or customer service reps pressing too hard for proof of death on grief stricken customers who simply do not have the facilities to deal with the machine in the same way as someone does on their best day.”

Marshall advises surviving family to expect to have multiple death certificate copies ready to resolve old accounts.

“As you go down the list of assets and liabilities that need to be changed or cancelled, you can be assured that nearly every company involved will want proof of the death,” he says.

What do you think? Should mobile phone providers require a death certificate to close a deceased person’s account? Have you ever had a similar experience?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.