AT&T accuses customer of returning an 'empty box' instead of his defective phone

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (KGO) -- When you shop online, it's nice to know you can also return an item that doesn't work out. Most retailers make it simple - but it was hugely frustrating for a Walnut Creek man. He returned a defective phone and got charged for it anyway. Not only that but after he followed all the shipping instructions to the letter, he was wrongly accused of being a thief.

It began when Curt Brohard realized couldn't activate Siri on his iPhone 7.

"Siri, are you there?" Brohard said, showing us the trouble he had. "Siri, can you tell me the weather?"

He had just received the phone from AT&T to replace a broken one. Now this one wasn't working right.

"We took it into the Apple store, they said yes, the microphone's not working," he said.

So, Brohard made another claim for another phone through his AT&T insurance. All he had to do was mail in the defective phone.

"I packaged it up with the phone in the box, I used the pre-addressed label-- took it to the main post office,'' Brohard recalls. "I followed their guidelines exactly."

And two days later he received a new phone. Problem solved -- until he saw his next bill from AT&T.

"It was a shock,'' he said. "More than $1,300. Four times more than usual. When you see that, you kind of take notice."

Turns out AT&T had added a charge of $869 - and it was for that defective phone. AT&T claimed he never returned it.

"So I phoned them up, I said, 'What are you talking about? I returned the phone within the 10 days you said I had.' ''

He provided the tracking history which shows the package was indeed delivered to the AT&T warehouse back in February.

The company's reply was a real shocker.

"They said the box was empty,'' Brohard recalls. "They said I returned an empty box."

Curt was astonished. He spent hours on the phone trying to assure AT&T he did put that phone in the box he had shipped.

No one would believe him.

"They said, 'We've contacted the warehouse. There was no phone in the box, so we're not giving you credit for the $869.' I said this is ridiculous. I felt like they were treating me like a criminal. They didn't believe me when I said I returned this phone in the box. It's a very humiliating feeling to be treated that way."

He had no way to prove he was telling the truth. He tried to imagine what he could have done to avoid this accusation. Should he have taken a picture of the phone in the box?

"Then they could simply say well after you took the photograph you took out the phone and kept it,'' he said.

What if he weighed it?

"They could have said you put a rock in there,'' he said. "Neither I or my friends could think of any way we could have done this to ensure we were credited with returning the phone. It's not like the old days where you would bring an item back to a brick-and-mortar store and they would see it right there."

That made him think about the billions of packages that get shipped and returned every day in today's world of e-commerce.

"Imagine if Amazon told all of its customers that the products they returned were empty boxes,'' Brohard said. "The whole internet commerce and mail order commerce around the world would collapse."

That didn't sway AT&T.

Among the worst parts of his ordeal, Brohard said, was that AT&T kept him on the phone for hours at a time, putting him on hold, switching him around to various departments.

"And if you hang up, you have to start all over again with the whole process,'' he said. "I was beside myself and my wife heard my frustration and heard me raising my voice on the phone. She suggested in call Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.''

He did. And we contacted AT&T asking how someone can be sure their shipment of merchandise will be properly documented. It said only: "We encourage our customers to ensure their return items are securely sealed before sending."

Which of course Curt did. In fact, AT&T told him that video of the box showed it had not been tampered with.

However, without comment, AT&T agreed to waive that $869 fee after all.

"I'm very thankful,'' Brohard said. "If it wasn't for 7 On Your Side, I'd still be arguing with them about the phone being in the box."

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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