Early last summer, Rob Lohry’s mom Patricia called his cell phone and left a message, asking him to come down to Portland from Seattle for a weekend visit. She told him she loved him, as she always told her kids, and she hung up.
It was maybe 12 seconds, at most — a pretty ordinary call.
But it became much more than that to him after his mom died of cancer a few months later, and he discovered the message on his phone.
“What was special about the voicemail was the fact that she left it for me before any of her illness came to light,” explains Lohry, 33, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Marysville, Wash. “It was my connection to a time before cancer robbed her away from me. Listening to it got me through a lot of rough times during mourning, and sometimes I would play my voicemail just to hear it.”
It was the only recording of his mom in existence, as far as he knows. (His family didn’t have a video camera when he was growing up.) Whenever Lohry came back across the message, he would press the ‘9’ button on his standard-issue Nokia cell phone to resave it. As time went on, he listened to it less and less. But in the back of his mind, he always felt good knowing it was there.
Until one day, a few weeks ago, when it wasn’t.
The message had been automatically deleted by his wireless provider, T-Mobile USA. When Lohry called to find out what happened, the customer service rep explained that even “saved” voicemail messages are purged after 30 days. To save a message for longer than that, it turns out he needed to keep resaving the message before the 30 days were up, restarting the clock.
Since he hadn’t been listening to the message as much, and he wasn’t aware of the rule, he had unknowingly allowed the clock to expire. The message from his mom was gone.
More power, less control
It’s one of the trade-offs of the digital age. Wireless services are empowering our lives like never before, letting us store and access photos, videos, voicemail messages and pretty much anything we want from pretty much anywhere we go. But that also means entrusting those precious items to the companies we do business with.
T-Mobile isn’t alone in automatically deleting saved messages. In fact, its flat 30-day retention policy is better, in some ways, than the policies of its competitors. Verizon deletes saved messages after 21 days under its basic voicemail plan, or 40 days if people pay for a premium plan. AT&T deletes messages after 14 days under a basic plan, and 30 days under a premium plan.
But here’s where T-Mobile falls short: Its current voicemail system doesn’t give its subscribers a warning in advance of a message being deleted.
Verizon customers, for example, hear an audible alert when they access their voicemail, warning them that messages are about to be deleted and giving them options for managing their voicemail boxes. The voicemail system of AT&T (which is in the process of buying T-Mobile USA for $39 billion) automatically tells wireless subscribers how long a particular message will be saved.
After T-Mobile was contacted by GeekWire about Lohry’s message, a spokesman said the company is in the midst of an upgrade to its national voicemail system. Features will include prompts that remind customers when a voicemail is about to be deleted, suggesting they save it again if they don’t want to lose it.
T-Mobile is planning to shift all of its customers to that new system by the end of the year. But for now those prompts don’t happen.
Smartphones with visual voicemail are a different matter — in many cases allowing users to store messages locally on their device and sidestep the automatic deletion. T-Mobile offers a free visual voicemail app for Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone 7 that copies the messages off the server and keeps them on the smartphone or an SD card. And across the industry, a variety of apps and premium carrier services are available to smartphone users for saving and exporting messages.
An issue of awareness, and notification
That doesn’t help Lohry, one of two-thirds of Americans using a standard feature phone.
And because of T-Mobile’s approach, he had no reasonable way of knowing that the message from his mom would be deleted. In addition to the lack of an audible alert, the company doesn’t actively inform its customers when they sign up for service, or at any other point, that it will be deleting messages after 30 days. To learn about the policy, customers need to call customer service and ask for help with the voicemail system, according to the company.
After Lohry called to find out what happened to his mom’s message, T-Mobile customer service had engineering to look for it. No luck. But the system had worked as intended, they assured him. The company checked again after we contacted them about Lohry’s situation, but it says the message from his mom is definitely gone.
“We really regret that this happened for this customer,” said T-Mobile spokesman Glenn Zaccara.
At the very least, the situation illustrates the need for companies to communicate more clearly about what they’ll be doing to that all that important stuff we’ve entrusted to them. That’s particularly the case when what they’ll be doing is counterintuitive — like deleting “saved” messages.
“I was under the impression that voicemails and messages on my phone are my property and I can do with them as I please as long as I keep paying my monthly subscription fees,” Lohry says. “I never gave them permission to touch my messages. I shouldn’t have to manually save all of my messages again and again to avoid deletion, once should be enough.”
Lohry plans to find a new wireless carrier when his contract expires at the end of the month. He’s telling his story to help keep others from going through the same turmoil.
“Other mobile customers need to be aware that this is happening and can happen to them,” he says. ” I can’t be the first person this has happened to but hopefully I can be one of the last.”