Verizon offers free iPhone, then bills customer for it

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The offers can be hard to resist - buy one get one free - But are you really getting a freebie? Sometimes not.

Just ask Pauline Wan of San Francisco. She accepted a Verizon offer to buy one iPhone, and get the second one free.

"They gave me the free phone, but then then I noticed on the bill, they charged me for that phone," she said.

She called Verizon to demand a refund. That led to weeks of frustration, phone calls, hours on hold, and promises for a resolution that never came.

"I felt like they made me keep calling and calling and I couldn't get a direct response,'' she said. "They kept saying, 'OK we'll research this, and someone will call you back.' They never called me back."

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It began when Wan bought an iPhone 8 for her brother, and the next day, noticed the "buy one get one free" offer. She went back to the Verizon store. "They said, yes I do qualify for the promotion,'' she recalls. "All I had to do was bring in an old iPhone for a trade-in."

She also had to sign a new two-year agreement for that free phone - a commitment Wan was willing to make for a free $700 phone.

So Wan took an old iPhone to a nearby ClickAway store, which is an authorized Verizon retailer. The store wrote up her new two year contract, took her trade-in, gave her the free iPhone, and she went on her way.

Until the ClickAway store called her back.

"They said I had to take the trade-in to a Verizon corporate store, not an authorized dealer,'' she said.

So, OK, Wan got her old iPhone back and went to the Verizon store where she says a clerk didn't know what to do for her. She went to another store - and this time the promotion worked.

"They took the trade-in, they said they would connect it to the promotional sale and it was fine," Wan said.

Wan says she was told she'd be billed $29 per month for two months for the phone that was supposed to be free. But, it was just a processing formality. Verizon would reimburse that fee, then stop charging her any device fee.

"And from then on, I wouldn't have to pay anything for that free phone," she said.

Which sounded fine - except that isn't what happened.

"After the third month I looked at my bill and they didn't reimburse me for the money I paid in,'' she said. Not only that, they kept charging her that $29 per month. The bill indicated she'd have to keep paying until the full $700 was paid for the phone.

Wan thought the phone was free.

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"I called Verizon and at first they said I didn't qualify for the free phone because I went to the authorized dealer and not the Verizon corporate store,'' Wan said. "I told them, I didn't know that, nobody told me that when I signed up or I would have gone to the Verizon store."

Wan did all the usual things, asking to talk to a supervisor, sitting on hold on the phone, and being told she couldn't talk to a supervisor. Finally she was referred back to ClickAway.

ClickAway said there was nothing it could do, it was Verizon's promotion. But she could talk to a district manager.

"The district manager never called me so I called back and said, "will you give me the number of the district manager? And they said, 'no you can't have his number.'"

She tried Verizon again.

"They said, OK we'll give you a case number and someone will get back to you,'' Wan said. "Nobody ever called. I called back many times and I wasn't ever able to talk to anybody who had any authority."

All she got was more bills for the phone that was supposed to be free.

"So I finally decided to call 7 On Your Side,'' Wan said.

Seven On Your Side brought her case to Verizon, which responded immediately.

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"The next day ... I got a call from the executive offices in New York,'' Wan said. "The man was very apologetic, he said we're sorry and I'm going to honor that promotion and give you a refund."

Verizon did refund those $29 payments and stopped billing her for the phone.

Verizon tells ABC7: "We strive to deliver the world class experience every Verizon customer expects and deserves. In this case, we failed to deliver on that promise. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused, and we are grateful to Ms. Wan for giving us the opportunity to continue earning her loyalty."

Wan says the promotion never included requirements about redeeming the promotion only at a Verizon store. She also admits she didn't get any of the terms in writing.

"I think I've learned a lot of lessons from this,'' she said. "Ask a lot of questions and get a lot of details. I just trusted the process and the people who were telling me I qualified for the promotion."

"I really appreciate you having this (7 On Your Side) program and helping the community,'' Wan said. "It's a really valuable service."

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