Cox doesn’t want me

We’ve been using cellular Internet for about four years now.   With upgrades to the cellular networks, it has gradually become a very good option for most people who travel a lot.   In fact, Verizon’s service here in Tucson is so good that we have been using it as our home Internet between trips in the Airstream.

But it’s not very fast.   It’s adequate.   For big file downloads, I usually seek out a nearby wifi hotspot. (With a soft chair, a hot chai and a muffin, it’s no sacrifice at all to go to Panera Bread, or Bookman’s.)

Now that we are in the house more than we are in the Airstream, it seems inevitable that I would get some sort of wired Internet service, either cable or DSL.   Frankly, with cellular there were some tasks that took forever, such as uploading photos and using secure websites.   With cable or DSL I can get much faster speeds, and that increases my efficiency at work.

So I checked the local deals and decided to go for Cox Communications‘ cable Internet offering.   And then, in a stunning episode of customer disservice, I was abruptly reminded of why I haven’t patronized cable companies since 1995.

It always ticks me off when companies ask for a Social Security number, when they don’t really need it. Cox claimed it was required so they could run a credit check and “verify my identity,” which is a load of hooey.   I quote the Social Security Administration below:

If a business or other enterprise asks you for your number, you can refuse to give it. However, that may mean doing without the purchase or service for which your number was requested. For example, utility companies and other services ask for a Social Security number, but do not need it [emphasis mine]; they can do a credit check or identify the person in their records by alternative means.

I submitted my Social Security number (SSN) with reluctance, thinking at the time that I didn’t like the implication that they use credit scores to determine whether they should take a deposit from me.   My credit is fine but I am very troubled in general by the trend toward using credit scores to determine things like car insurance rates.   And I really hate the way SSNs, which are a prime asset to identity thieves, are demanded by almost everyone these days.   If you have a choice between handing out a credit card number or your SSN, give ’em the credit card number every time.   You can always get a new one, and your liability is strictly limited by law — both of which are not true of the SSN.

The day after I sent in my order via Cox‘s website, I received a lengthy email with lots of information I didn’t need.   About halfway down was the piece I was looking for, my anticipated installation date.   It was marked “TBD.”   Huh.

At the very bottom of the form letter was a paragraph that said:

An initial deposit payment of $50.00 is required to schedule your installation. Please note that the charges for the Cox modem must be paid before we can schedule your installation.
Your Cox Customer Care Team

But nowhere in the email was a hint of how to pay the $50 … or why.   No phone number at all.   If they wanted me to pay, wouldn’t you think they’d tell me how?

I went to the website, found the phone number, and promptly was sent into the 7th level of Hell, known in business circles as “the Voice Response Unit.” (In English, that means an idiotic talking computer.)

My usual response to VRUs is to keep hitting zero until they give up and hand me over to a real person.   This system was apparently well-defended against that tactic, so I punched 3 for “Billing” and asked what was going on.   “They can’t verify your social security number,” said the woman at Cox.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.   “I’ve never seen that before.”

“So now what?” I asked, dreading the answer that I knew would come.

“I’ll transfer you.”

Well, that began a game of “hot potato” as various Cox representatives tossed me to the next person.   The third, or perhaps fourth, person had me go through the process of “verifying information,” so they got it all again: name, address, social security number, secret Cox PIN #, service address, billing address, etc.   And he told me …. (drum roll please) …

“We can’t verify your social security number.”

Perhaps getting a little testy at this point, I said in a chilly tone, “I know that.     What does it mean?”

He babbled something circular which amounted to saying that they couldn’t because they couldn’t, and said I would need to go to a Cox office and show my Social Security card “so we can verify your identity.”

Let me tell you, it was a mighty temptation to tell him that I was pretty sure that I had an identity, and a blue piece of non-secure paper issued in 1963 would prove absolutely nothing about it.   Instead, I told him the unvarnished truth.   I haven’t seen my Social Security card since I was about 12 years old, and yet in the intervening time I’ve managed to purchase homes, pay taxes, create corporations, obtain a US Passport, and even get cell phones without it.

But that is not good enough for Cox Communications.   Without showing a Social Security card and two other forms of ID, I would not be permitted to have cable service.   I was not worthy.

I gave the guy one more chance, asking if they would accept alternate forms of ID in lieu of my long-lost Social Security card.   No dice.   I was, potentially, an unidentifiable person to Cox, despite being a US citizen with a valid Passport, driver’s license, and a very good credit rating.   So, I said, “I guess this means we can’t do business,” and the guy agreed, and he canceled my order.

It amazes me.   I know that most of the customers probably don’t encounter this issue, but still I can’t believe that Cox would drive potential customers away over such a ridiculous, bureaucratic, petty requirement.

The story has a happy ending. Soon after Cox found me unsuitable to be a customer, I called Qwest to get DSL Internet.   I didn’t get a VRU, I didn’t get transferred, and my order was placed in a few minutes despite the fact that I have never done business with Qwest before.   My modem will arrive on Wednesday, and I didn’t get asked for a deposit.   I even pushed my luck by calling the next day to clarify a few questions, and got prompt, courteous, and intelligent answers. So even before I turn on the new Qwest broadband Internet service, I’m a happy customer.

(But they still asked for my SSN.   We’ll have to work on that.)