Rob Lohry at his home. (GeekWire Photo/Annie Laurie Malarkey)

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.

How T-Mobile’s existing voicemail system works

• Once a voicemail is accessed, it will be deleted in 30 days, unless a customer saves it.
• A message can be accessed again and saved before the 30 days expire to keep the message for an additional 30 days.
• Any voicemail that is not listened to is deleted in 14 days.
• To keep a voicemail longer than 30 days, the customer needs to access the voicemail again and save it again, each month.
– Source: T-Mobile USA

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.

Rob Lohry and his mom, Patricia, at his Western Washington University graduation.

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.”

Comments

  • Guest

    Using carrier voicemail is like relying on your ISP-provided e-mail address. Just as nobody today needs to use addresses “at comcast.net” or “at aol.com” when Gmail exists, so too must we stop expecting our mobile phone carriers to support what is essentially a money-losing feature.

    I would strongly recommend Google Voice. It e-mails to me an MP3 and a transcript of every message I receive; I can then save these files to my hard drive and hang on to each of these messages for as long as I want without Google retaining any rights to delete them.

    • http://twitter.com/aaBowlin Austin Bowlin

      I have an @aol.com email address. Where would I send all potential spam/scam mail otherwise..?

      • Guest

        Yahoo!, Austin. That’s what Yahoo! Mail is for.

  • Forrest Corbett

    Reminds me of how in the early days of Sprint’s “picture mail” service you could upload all of your photos to their site. It would remove them from the phone, but they were to be permanently available on Sprint’s site.

    Then one day all my old photos were gone. A policy change had occurred and if you didn’t log into the *web* portal via web browser, they would be deleted after 30 days. Previously you just needed to remain a paying subscriber. The photos were gone forever – so much for “permanent”.

    This also reminds me of how flaky mobile provider voicemail has always been. Two days after my mom passed my phone beeped indicating I had new voicemail. The voicemail was from my mom and had been left about 48hrs earlier. It’s freaky to get a new voicemail from someone who’s no longer alive.

  • Yoshiandval

    T-Mobile just cost me Millions of dollars in potential sales of my knee brace by “automatically purging” messages for Olympic Athletes.  Their response, “Sorry for the inconvenience”.   My response, ” a few dollars is an inconvenience, millions is a effing catastrophe!, that’s like calling Hurricane Katrina an inconvenience.”   So, can’t get me voicemail back, and can’t change the past, but I can hopefully affect the present and the future.   I still don’t understand why they give us the option to save or delete, if they are going to automatically purge for us.  BTW.  I had listened to all 3 messages, 2 days before they were “purged”!

    • AT&T problems again

      It is amazing that any of these companies have the right to delete our messages. After 10 years almost with Tmobile who did that, I switched to ATT who did that and lost me important messages and contact numbers. And denied that they could or did it… And now it happened again so I googled it and found out once again I was not told the truth by AT&T representatives !

  • Anonymous

    We’d suggest people consider YouMail – we allow you not only to save messages forever (simply by saving them), but we also allow you to organize them in folders, as well as download them to your computer.    Plus, you can easily share them – like on Facebook – with just a couple of clicks.   http://www.youmail.com

  • Jlyntan

    I experienced the same problem. One day before my court hearing which is tomorrow,to extend an aggravated stalking order my voice mails were all deleted- even the ones that were not older than thirty days. I am now left with nothing to bring in as evidence of all the treats and harrassment I recieved and all T-Mobile can telll me is what they “cannot” do for me.

    • Jtejr

      the stalker deleted them

  • Thevarinator

    Hi ,
    I just had very valuable emails automatically deleted from my t-mobile plan.  SOme had been on there for well over  2  years and I have NEVER had to resave them. They changed something and did not let us know.  Here the chat I just had

    jason v: I recently checked my voicmail and found that all my saved voicemails were deleted. I had 4 or 5 that were critical! I recieved no notice that they would be deleted. I need them back and I will download to my computer then I will delete them. Some had been on my phone for over a year…why did you not notify me??? _Michelle S: Hi jason , welcome to T-Mobile live Chat. I’m _Michelle and I will be happy to assist you. Please give me a moment to review your question. _Michelle S: I apologize for the issues you are having with the voice mail messages. I will be glad to help you today, Jason on the prepaid account. _Michelle S: I am reviewing your account and handset information to better assist you today. I appreciate your patience. jason  no problem _Michelle S: I am aware of a way to retrieve the deleted voice mail messages only right after they are deleted while still in the voice mail box on the phone. _Michelle S: Unfortunately, I do not see any recent changes to the account or voice mail box on our end over the last few months. jason : They were not deleted on my end. I am sure it was when you switched something over…. for instance now it tells me a message will be marked for deletion.. This has never happened before so obviously something did change on your end _Michelle S: I apologize for the inconvenience on your end, but we do not have any way to delete a customer’s personal voice mail messages. _Michelle S: The only issue would be if the voice mail box was reset, which is not the case for this line after the review. _Michelle S: Unfortunately, I do not have any additional information on a resolution to retrieve the lost voice mail messages for the prepaid account. I wish I had another option for you. I can imagine your concern and frustration with the situation also, Jason. _Michelle S: I see this is a non T-Mobile device also, which only allows us limited information. _Michelle S: We have not switched anything on the account for you other than your refill amounts over the last few months of the account review. Is there a change you can inform me of to better assist you that may have happened on the account or with the phone? _Michelle S: Jason, are you still there? jason  So when I checked my messages yesterday or the day before it told me I had 1 new voicemail and one saved voicemail it then went on to say the old voicemail woudl be deleted unless I resaved it. I have had this service for years and that has NEVER happened. So you are telling me that nothing has changed regarding how voicemails are handled in the last few weeks???? _Michelle S: I see the long time service also and appreciate that. I can assure you we have not made an changes to the account without your authorization. _Michelle S: I have reviewed the account memos also back to 10/28/10 and see no issues or changes on the account other than refills. jason : Thanks…. I will check with other users

    • Jlyntan

      I agree with your assumption. They changed something without the knowledge of thier customers. I am starting to wonder if this has anything to do with the proposed merger with AT& T.

    • karen

      That’s so frustrating…all these people do is read from ManuScripts.!!

  • Jack Steele

    I had almost the same exact scenario. I had lost my wife to cancer 6 months ago and had been holding on to a few generic voicemails she had left for me. I listened to them every day, just hearing her say “I love you” gave me the strength to get through most days. 

    I was able to save the old voicemails from my wife onto my computer as a mp3. I found a company that allowed me to do it myself. It was really easy and quick. The company is called Voicemails Forever http://www.voicemailsforever.com

    Now I’ve taken that voicemail and some others and made a mix CD of all her favorite songs, with the VM’s mixed in between. It’s my favorite possession and it allows me to remove myself from the world and be with her again. 

    I hope that anyone who lost a loved one finds a way like I did to preserve those memories. It really helps. 

    • Qiudaoyu

      Good.

  • C Solutions Llc

    Thanks for this story. I find it astonishing that some phone company idgit would solve this problem by giving us a long message telling us that we have to re-save the message again.every time a message is do for deletion.
    JUST STOP DELETING OUR SAVED MESSAGES!
    If we saved it it’s for a reason!
     What a stupid lack of service.
    So AT&T like.

    • Ticked

      Just found my saved messages have been deleted, as well. Time to look for a new carrier.

  • Georgia51

    Rob, I know just how you feel. The same thing just happened to me. I had “saved” voice messages on my phone from my dad. He passed away a few weeks ago and I’d been listening almost every day to his voice telling me he loved me. Each time I would “save” the messages to my archives.Yesterday I got a tape recorder so I could permanently save the messages, & they were gone!! When I went to U.S Cellular to find out what happened & if they could somehow retrieve them since they hadn’t been erased by me, (no they could not), I was told that even though I “saved” the messages, they were still erased automatically after a period of time. Nowhere in all their literature does it tell you that saved messages aren’t saved!! Even though I’d resaved my messages every few days, it didn’t matter. When the phone got to its preset number of days, the messages were wiped. Saved means nothing, & I think the cell phone companies need to let their customers know!! Like Rob, I have lost something so precious that I will never get back!! 

  • Jottomcat

    I am sure there is a way to get the messages back.  My Mom recently passed away, and I would like to listen to her messages, and hear her spoken voice again.  What about the Cloud? Where do these messages go?

    • Pavzke

      Did you ever find a way to get the messages back?

  • humanegal

    I totally feel for everyone on this message board. I just found out the hard way to about voicemails and being deleted. I am so angry at verizon and at&t. I switched from verizon to at&t,&ported my old number to at&t. I went to do my usual once a month saving of about 40 voicemails between 2 phone lines, it was beyond devastated that all of them are gone. It had the last voIce maIls from my deceased frIend, it had lovely voice mails from my mom before she became ill. I’m pretty much crushed at this point. I’m very mad that first of all verizon did not let at&t know during the port, to make sure you let the client know they will lose all their verizon voicemails. Also, At&t hAs been porting numbers to their service for mAny yeArs And they should hAve told me thAt I’m About to lose my voicemails. I called at&t customer service, it was offered a bill credit, big deal. There’s noThing They can do or pay me or crediT me ThaT will ever change what was lost. Very sad in md. …….

    • Pavzke

      Excellant post! I had the same thing happen when switching from Verizon to Cellcom. No one mentioned saved messages and I never gave it a thought. That was just over a week ago and I am still searching for a possible way to get them.

  • PISSEDOFFCELLPHONEUSER999

    No, this is NOT just AT&T and TMobile! I used to use both of them and I understand COMPLETELY the issues with them and that was back in the days before I-phones and when they were mainly supplied by “prepaid” cards and their system was such a nightmare that you lost SO much time with the company while trying to deal with the arrogant, harassing and incorrigable staff trying to get the “fake” prepaid cards to work that you basically HAD NO PHONE AT ALL AND WERE WASTING YOU ENTIRE PAY CHECK (which for me was at the time about minimum wage in 2004 and in my area that was ONLY about $6.50 an hour) because they claimed the prepaid card was INVALID AND YOU HAD JUST BOUGHT THEM AND YOU WASTED ALL OF YOUR MONEY TO BUY ANOTHER ONE BECAUSE OF THEIR IGNORANCE because you needed the phone for work! I had their ugly little silver “stick” phone that was a tiny screen, ten-key, straight phone and had no flip-open lid and looked like a mini-remote and because of how crap they and AT&T (this phone was my first cell and a TMobile) they wouldn’t have even made ugly, sub-standard PAPERWEIGHTS!!!

    I currently have a Verizon phone (the standard Samsung LG flip) and I at present only have 19 messages and I am being told that my MESSAGES ARE FULL!!! I am refusing to delete messages because I was assaulted, raped and then stalked by an ex-classmate from high school who’s one of those people that thinks because they’ve had a “hard-nuck-life” that acting like a “thug” and “cursing” is cool and I was a transfer student into one of those hell hole schools from a school that had a bad run the first year I was there because the admin forced the disability office not to do a damned thing and then my folks thought too little too late and wouldn’t see that the school more than 360’d and I was having the completely opposite experience that year and so when I switched to Hell last thing I was worrying about was who i was friend-ing and trying to cope with the crap and so my number fell into the wrong hands and this is the type of girl who will do anything to get others in trouble because she is so low on self esteem and all of that so it makes her feel better…Anyway, point is she saved my number and she got it in the first place because like I said I, as we prolly all did in school at one point or another made stupid decissions about who we made our friends and so she kept trying mine and she got back to me and I never showed when she wanted to meet again and somehow she found me and did the above! This girl has in the past punched me and busted my lip and done the whole false concern, then eventually stalks you and says oh you’re a fat so and so and curses and then will call you back on a landline after she gets bored of you ignoring her and say “you’re my enemy and don’t call me anymore” when you don’t call her in the first place and that was her whole verbal plight all throughout school! I told my father who’s a doc about the attack and he did NOTHING!!! No report to higher ups and even told me NOT TO RECEIVE HELP!!! I come from one of those homes where family couldn’t comprehend the disabilities and thought best way to “handle” them was/is with abuse and call it “helping” me and so since this happened on 11/1/12 (Thursday, November 1st, 2012), I do not drive and was not believed and I couldn’t go to my family, have NO friends in the area because all of my friends are the “religious” types (no offense) who believe that just like you need a d*** to screw someone you need one to R*** someone, so they were NO HELP!!! That said, I have been trying to keep dealing with this “off the books” and thus I didn’t want to use the credit card my parents gave me to use to get to the hospital because my mom is one of said religious types who was one of the main ones who couldn’t handle my disabilities and told me that if I wasn’t this way I wouldn’t be such an “issue” for her and thus she wouldn’t have to treat me like crap and could never handle something “queer” in nature (as she would put the rape) happening to her daughter and would throw me out on the street for it and already feels she can throw me out for missing two spots on the floor!!! So, I missed the bus for the next day which was a Friday and would have taken myself to the hospital on Thursday night, but was in a bus accident and that was never resolved (I got on bus driver was WAY late and he was one of those people that when you take a look he will not give you a chance to get behind the line and so I was slammed into the bus doors!!!) and I have arthritis and I could barely force myself to loosen up and get on another bus and local law enforcement here just tells YOU TO GO DOWN TO THE FUCKIN’ COURTHOUSE NO MATTER HOW BAD IT GETS and so I couldn’t go on the weekend to the hospital by cab and that would have been past the 72 hour recovery window for evidence come Monday and so ALL I HAD LEFT FOR ANY PROOF WAS THE MESSAGES FROM MY STALKER AND EVEN WITH ALL OF THE FUCKIN’ TECH IN THE WORLD THEY GET COMPLETELY LOST AND I HAVE JUST ABOUT NO CASE!!! Verizon’s 21 save day is a FARCE, anyway!!! I have had some of the messages from her (SHE HAS SENT MOST RESTRICTED AND USUALLY WITHOUT VOICE MESSAGE WHEN LEAVING THE RESTRICTED ONES, but sometimes she did and then she would slip up and call me on her CELL!!!) AND I HAD SAVED THOSE THE DAY I GOT THEM AND ABOUT A WEEK LATER (SEVEN DAYS) I HAD LOST THEM FOR NO REASON AT ALL AND THEY SAID THAT THERE WAS NOTHING THEY COULD DO AND MY FATHER OBVIOUSLY BLAMES ME FOR THE ATTACK AND IT’S A PHONE IN HIS NAME AND I THUS CANNOT GET HER BLOCKED!!!! FFS!!! IF ONLY THERE WAS SOMEWAY TO DOWNLOAD MESSAGES THE SAME WAY AS YOU COULD PICS FROM ANY PHONE THAT TAKES A USB TO A COMPUTER ALL BY PLUGGING IT INTO A PC SO YOU CAN PERMANENTLY KEEP THE PICS AND BY USING THE SAME METHOD, BUT JUST FORMATTED FOR VOICEMAIL’S THEY COULD BE DOWNLOADED, SO THAT ANYONE IN MY AND/OR A SIMILAR SITUATION TO MINE WHO CAN ONLY DEAL WITH SUCH AN IMPORTANT THING VIA CELLPHONE DOES NOT LOSE SUCH EVIDENCE TO THE POINT WHERE IT COSTS THEM MUCH NEEDED JUSTICE!!!! UGH!!!! I MEAN SERIOUSLY THE POLICE TECH, EVEN THOUGH IT’S SO ADVANCED HASN’T CAUGHT UP TO THE PHONE COMPANY’S TECH TO RECOVER WHAT THEY REMOVED BECAUSE OF HOW THEY DELETE IT AND I AM BASICALLY SH*T OUTTA LUCK FOR PUTTIN’ A RAPIST WITH ONE STRIKE TO HER NAME ALREADY AND A DOC WITH A LONG MALPRACTICE STREAK OUTTA BUSINESS FOR ALL HE’S DONE TO MESS WITH MY HEALTH AND THEN SCREW ME EVEN MORE THIS WAY!!! THIS IS WHY I HATE CELLPHONES!!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.campbell.7370013 Sarah Campbell

    Wow. I had no idea about this. I actually saved a message from my dad for over 6 years on my Verizon phone. I did have to keep saving it over and over. When we were switching to AT&T I also discovered VoiceMails Forever. It is a wonderful thing. I was goggling this because there was a lady I needed to call back and was about to and just found our her message vanished. What a crock.

  • Dan

    With this day and age I don’t understand why you can’t store a least a few messages on your phone by default first, just like answering machines for home phones. Phones nowadays easily have better specs than computers made before the year 2000. Especially when the messages aren’t even stored on your phone, it’s sad that companies are so picky that you can’t even save a few messages. If you have a router at home to connect to don’t bother paying another monthly bill for internet either.

  • ozzie santiago

    stores.ebay.com/elmercadosantiago

  • ozzie santiago
  • angry

    I am in a similar situation. I’m fighting a legal battle and I needed a saved message as proof in my case. I witness admitted, in a voice mail, that she committed an illegal act. I saved the message many times because I thought I might need it. Now that criminal charges have been brought against her, the message is gone. It was automatically deleted from my stupid, worthless phone. It’s just wrong!

  • Discoveryellow

    Just lost some important messages on my AT&T visual voicemail Windows Phone 8 due to automatic deletion. Now, not only ATT didn’t mention to me the auto-deletion thing is at 30 days, there wasn’t even an option to re-save it for another 30 days (restart the clock) in the visual voicemail buttons list.

    Too bad I came across this article only after losing my voice mail. At least it’s not from a person who passed away. Really sorry to hear this guys story.

  • Tony

    Fast forward to April 2014. T Mobil is full of shit and has not done ANYTHING to correct this issue.

  • Tony

    Fast forward to April 2014. T Mobil is full of shit and has not done a thing to correct this issue.

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