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My Telstra Catch-22



On 23 August I wrote the following letter to Telstra for reasons that will become apparent:

Chris Johnston cartoonDear Sir/Madam,

I have just received a phone bill and once again, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, there is an overdue amount of $52.80 which was originally for something called 'purchases'.

The first time this happened the amount for 'purchases' was $48. I didn't pay close enough attention to the bill and simply settled the phone account plus the $48 extra. I later realised we had purchased absolutely nothing and had received nothing. When I rang Telstra about this, one of your consultants explained that Telstra was merely the vehicle for this bill and I would need to talk to the billing firm whose name [let's call them Ozone Pty Ltd] and phone number he gave me.

When I rang Ozone and pointed out that neither my wife nor I had ever had any dealings with them, I was told that our mobile numbers would be removed from their files. On the next account, however, $48 had been replaced by $52.80 as 'overdue'.

So I rang them again. The person I spoke to said that Ozone would send me a cheque for $52.80. I didn't believe this but in any case I had to give precedence to coping with a very threatening communication from Telstra about payment 'overdue'. I rang and spoke unsuccessfully to one of your consultants so I asked to speak to a supervisor who assured me that there would be no further reference to the irrepressible 'overdue'.

A couple of weeks later both our phones suddenly ceased to operate. I immediately suspected that the ghost of overdue had come to life again. I rang the Telstra number — the only one on which either of our banned phones would now work — and I was able to establish that we were being punished for not having paid $52.80 still owing! Yet again I managed to fend off the threats temporarily so that our phones were alive once more. Meanwhile, a cheque for $52.80 from Ozone arrived in the mail.


"I presume this sort of demeaning shambles is not what they intend when they say 'It's how we connect'."


You may be familiar with the expression 'Catch-22'. It comes originally from the novel of that name by Joseph Heller: the title passed into and has remained in everyday language because it so accurately caught the popular understanding of being in a totally inescapable No-Win situation.

In the novel, which is about a World War Two American squadron whose airmen are being ruthlessly exploited by their superiors, Catch-22 works as follows. Orr is one of the pilots who are attempting to fly fewer missions over enemy territory. 'Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. [Such was] the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22.'

Now compare that with this: I am being charged for items I did not buy and have never heard of. The cost of these 'purchases' was added to my normal Telstra phone bill. When I protested, Telstra said it was not involved, it simply administered the charges. I would have to protest to the firm making the charges — known as Ozone.

One protest results in no change whatsoever and I find I have already paid about $48.00 as part of a normal phone bill. Bad luck! Next time, however, I refuse to pay a new charge of $52.80 added to my phone bill for phantom purchases. As a result, service to my mobile phone (and to my wife's) is twice cut off and I devote a great deal of time to attempting to speak to someone in Telstra who will listen to the problem.

Meanwhile, I am reimbursed $52.80 which I in fact had never paid but which covers the original theft of $48 not to mention the hours of my time and the stress, anxiety and humiliation of being treated like a delinquent customer. Someone in Telstra says I should pay this $52.80 to Telstra and Telstra will then send it to Ozone! Catch-22! Entirely innocent from the start, I lose — no matter what happens. I presume this sort of demeaning shambles is not what you intend when you say 'It's how we connect'.

Yours sincerely ...

Within a day or so, there was a call from a senior consultant who assured me that the problem was solved, that she was wondering if I was a writer and that she would certainly read Catch-22. The next day a new bill arrived with the overdue $52.80 highlighted. I sent it back with another copy of my letter. A second call from a different consultant swiftly followed. He was reading Catch-22 and, he said amicably, everything would now be alright. And this time, after nearly six months of arm wrestling, it was.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Catch-22, Telstra, customer service



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Existing comments

For Telstra problems, I don't contact Telstra but go to their facebook page and make a comment or complaint there. It's always brought a response ... not always helpful but sometimes so, and it does seem to bypass the initial waste-of-time efforts you'd otherwise be making.

MargaretMC | 06 October 2017  

I find that I must contact Tel Co's (and most other companies for that matter) a minimum of three times before they will even begin to act. Perhaps this is policy! With Tel Co's an on-line complaint to the Telecommunication Ombudsman sometimes helps to move things along, though the last time I needed to access help this way I was fobbed off to another body. Perhaps even the Ombudsman is becoming overloaded. I rarely lose my temper in normal life but whenever I have to deal with TelCo's all that changes and it is truly touch and go!

BPLF | 10 October 2017  

I had a similar problem with Vodaphone who kept insisting I had not paid a bill. I kept ringing, they kept agreeing and promising, but the bill kept coming and coming and... Eventually a smart call centre person explained that the 'unpaid' bills automatically go to a credit recovery agency with whom they have no contact. By ringing on a Saturday afternoon when the call centre wasn't busy, and the operators didn't have to rush under the pressure of keeping up their stats so they wouldn't lose their jobs at the end of the month, it was eventually sorted. Sadly I was not creative enough to think of suggesting 'Catch-22' to them, but I will keep that idea for the next time something similar happens.

Pauline Small | 16 October 2017  

I experienced a not dissimilar situation caught between NBN and Telstra which ultimately resolved itself after also 6 months with the happy byproduct that I and a Telstra customer service person in the Philippines called Rose became most firm friends for those six caught between months.

Jennifer Herrick | 16 October 2017  

Brian, As one who has used the "Catch 22 " explanation repeatedly with numerous , abusive service suppliers and their disconnected billers, almost all of whom are too illiterate to understand, what I wish to know is how do we collectively regain our lives, time and sanity ? Please do more than describe our predicament, which is long universal, because clearly the " service economy " trades off and profits from abusing its own customers, while spouting its collective "care " for us. Can you organise a share boycott via our superannuation funds, distribute CEO personal phone numbers to be used by us for complaints between midnight and 5am, or a more modern reverse use of IT in our hands for redress ?

j p brown | 17 October 2017  

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