When the phone rings in 91-year-old Theresa Natalezio’s nursing home room, she can be pretty sure it’s someone from her large, close-knit family calling. But one day last September, the call that came into her room was not from a loved one, and her family members are still furious about it.
"Why are they calling a nursing home and my mother, who doesn't understand anything?" Theresa’s daughter Sandi asked.
The call came from Birch Communications, and led to the long-distance provider switching Theresa over to its service—and away from her longtime provider, AT&T. The Birch service quadrupled her monthly bill- from $16 up to $64. Theresa’s family says their matriarch was the victim of a practice known as “slamming,” which is when a phone provider switches a customer without their knowledge or permission.
When Sandi questioned the switch, she says Birch told her that her mother agreed to it.
"And I just went crazy! My mother never agreed to this. She has dementia, she can't hear, she can't see. How could you do something like this? And he said, ‘I'm sorry but she did.’"
Then, Sandi says, Birch played a recording of the call to Theresa. And it was a hard one to listen to.
"My emotions were so high listening and hearing my mother's frail voice," she said.
NBC 5 Responds obtained a copy of the call, which involved eleven automated questions. Some were lengthy, and all were in rapid succession. Too fast for someone with limited vision, hearing and some dementia to follow, Sandi said.
"She's not confirming because you never hear the beep to hit the pound key. She can't even see her phone to hit the pound key. So how could you continually go along ... how can you switch this person and say you had consent?"
If Birch did slam Theresa, she would not be the first victim, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Birch recently agreed to pay $6.1 million to settle an FCC investigation into whether it engaged in deceptive and abusive practices, specifically slamming. One-point-nine million of those dollars are earmarked specifically for customers who filed complaints about unauthorized changes. Birch also agreed to change its business practices and adopt a compliance plan.
Is Theresa’s case just more of the same? A Birch spokesperson denied this was a case of slamming, but says the company wiped out all charges upon learning Theresa was not capable of making the buying decision. He said that fact was not obvious during the call.
Today, Theresa has a new number, where her family hopes the only people who can reach her are the ones who adore her.
"We just think she's a saint. She's our saint. She's a wonderful lady."