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NewsChannel 3 Investigates: Thomas Fire victims fight AT&T over erroneous phone bills

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OJAI - Our NewsChannel 3 Investigates story exposes one of the many frustrations disaster victims have to deal with as they try to put their lives back together.

Imagine the Thomas Fire wiping out your neighborhood, including all of the phone lines but the phone company keeps sending you bills for service that doesn't exist anymore.

Joe Barthelemy owns the Serendipity Toy Store in Ojai with his wife Jill. The name offers a sharp contrast to their battle with AT&T.

When the Thomas Fire broke out in early December it nearly destroyed their Wheeler Springs home eight miles up the road. They lost a bridge, barn, vehicles and many of their neighbors lost everything.

"We live in an area that's dead for cell phones and GPS. So, landline is what we depend upon," said Joe Barthelemy.

The flames destroyed all of the phone lines too. So you can imagine the Barthelemy's surprise when they got a phone bill from AT&T in January. He called customer service, explained what happened and was told this.

"Don't worry, they'll have the line done by, they gave me a date, January 23rd or something which I found hard to believe. Indeed, the date came and went and no phone," said Barthelemy.

February arrives and so does another AT&T bill demanding payment for two months.

"I thought well, 'This isn't right to get a bill.' So I phoned again," said Barthelemy.

He says AT&T did not resolve the problem. March and April roll around and he gets two more bills this time for more than $420. Again, he refuses to pay but this time he writes them a letter with a simple request.

"Really this could best be resolved if somebody were to call me. I figured, after all, it's the telephone company. They would probably have lines available," said Barthelemy.

But he says AT&T never called. Even worse, Barthelemy knows some of his neighbors who lost much more in the fire had similar problems with AT&T.

Back at the toy store where the Barthelemy's could use a little serendipity at this point, they received a letter from AT&T notifying them their account was closed for non-payment and sent to collections.

"I filed complaints with both the California Public Utilities Commission and the FCC," said Barthelemy.

He also called NewsChannel 3. Just as we were about to do the interview Barthelemy finally received that phone call.

"AT&T called me to apologize profusely for the confusion and the misunderstanding," said Barthelemy.

AT&T erased all the charges and called off the bill collector.

The Barthelemy's believe pressure from the FCC forced AT&T to finally do the right thing here. But Joe Barthelemy wanted to tell their story anyway to help others who may be stuck with the same problem. He's also frustrated that AT&T didn't have a dedicated assistance number for disaster victims.

Plus, the Barthelemy's said AT&T told some of their neighbor's to cancel their service to avoid being billed. But now, when they go to turn that service back on they have to pay the setup fees again.

The Barthelemy's said AT&T just installed new phone lines in their neighborhood about a month ago. AT&T emailed this statement to NewsChannel 3 for this story:

"Given the scale and location of this fire, there were a number of complex technical issues that came up as we worked to repair the damage. The network is now operating normally. In addition, we’ve been in touch with this customer and were able to resolve his issue."

News / Ventura County

C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter.