Cell-phone customer complaints bring few solutions
By KEN ALLTUCKER
By KEN ALLTUCKER
Chuck Torrie cringed every time he opened his dead wife's cell-phone bills.
Month after month, the bills continued to arrive, piling on service charges and late fees to a bill for a phone that hadn't been flipped on since she died.
The Black Canyon City, Ariz., man tried unsuccessfully for months to fight the charges. He eventually negotiated a deal to pay nearly $1,100 in charges in exchange for the carrier's agreement to knock off $450.
"They said, 'Send us the death certificate and we'll zero out the account,' " says Torrie, a retired Arizona Highway Patrol sergeant. "I paid the balance by phone, but I continued to get the bills. It eventually went to credit."
Torrie is one of many customers across the nation who grapple with cell-phone companies every year about bills, service, contracts and other problems. The cellular industry is one of the nation's biggest generators of consumer complaints regarding improper charges, deceptive sales practices and poor service.
Unlike traditional landline telephone companies that must answer to government regulators, cell-phone providers largely have escaped federal and state oversight, leaving consumers to fend for themselves. And the industry has spent millions of dollars to hire lawyers and lobbyists to ensure it stays that way.
Wireless interests are fighting proposals in California and Massachusetts that would bolster consumer protection. In Arizona, Verizon Wireless has pushed a bill that would limit the Arizona Corporation Commission's oversight of the wireless industry.
Industry representatives argue that a hodgepodge of state regulations would needlessly inflate costs and stifle innovation.
They say robust competition among industry heavyweights such as Verizon Wireless, Cingular, T-Mobile and Sprint-Nextel has dramatically improved consumers' lot.
Customers pay much less today for wireless service than just a few years ago. Technology advances have transformed the bulky, boxy phones of the early 1990s into today's sleek, pocket-sized models that double as mini computers, cameras, calendars and even MP3 players.
"You don't fix something that's not broken," says Joe Farren, director of public affairs for the industry group CTIA-The Wireless Association. "When you have competition and companies in the marketplace fighting every day, that puts customers in the driver's seat."
Consumer groups and some state regulators see it differently.
They say more government safeguards are sorely needed because consumers have little recourse when companies tack on extra fees, sell service over networks with spotty reception or write hard-to-read contracts.
Consumers have the option of switching carriers, but that often requires a $200 breakup fee to get out of a contract.
The main federal law governing the cell-phone industry dates to 1993. Then, Congress decided that rates should be left to the free market, but states had the authority to pass laws dealing with complaints about service, billing, refunds or other issues.
Thirteen years later, the industry is much different, with even preteens and the elderly dialing razor-shaped phones or dashing off text messages. Americans talk more on wireless phones than traditional landline phones.
While customers of traditional landline phone companies can file a formal complaint with state regulators, wireless customers aren't afforded the same luxury.
"People are angry about cell-phone companies," says Arizona Corporation Commission member Marc Spitzer, who has pushed for more state oversight. "If they get shafted for $20, they have no real remedy. The attorney general doesn't have the staff to deal with that, and no lawyer is going to take a case for $20."
Cell-phone complaints to the federal government have soared.
From 2002 through 2004, complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission jumped 97 percent to 29,478. That number trickled down to 25,942 in 2005, but that was largely due to a rapid drop in number-portability complaints. The FCC tallied nearly 5,000 such complaints in 2004; few complained about number portability in 2005.
NO FEDERAL PENALTIES
Even though the FCC tracks complaints, it lacks the regulatory muscle to help consumers such as Carol Jackson of Kingman, Ariz.
Jackson's phone repeatedly dropped calls when she called her children in California, Colorado and Ohio.
She asked her provider to fix the spotty coverage. Instead, they shipped her a new phone and another two-year contract. The new phone didn't fix the problem.
So, Jackson filed a complaint last year with the FCC in an attempt to get out of her contract rather than pay a $200 early-termination fee.
"They just sent me a letter informing me that I'd have to pay the fee," Jackson says. "I can't afford to pay $200 to get out of my contract. I'm on a fixed income. It's infuriating."
While the FCC licenses wireless providers and logs consumer complaints, it doesn't force companies to answer consumers through threat of a fine or other penalty.
"These are informal complaints," says Rosemary Kimball, an FCC spokeswoman. "We work informally with the companies to try and resolve the issues."
Kimball adds that consumers have the option to press a formal complaint through the federal agency's enforcement bureau.
Kimball says she knows of no consumer who has successfully used that method. It most likely would require hiring a lawyer to work through the agency's regulations, she says.
STATE EFFORTS FAIL
States deluged with complaints from consumers have sought to impose their own regulations.
Legislators in all 50 states have introduced a total of 181 bills or other legislative pieces that would address consumer concerns about the wireless business, according to figures provided by CTIA-The Wireless Association.
But like the whack-a-mole carnival game, wireless interests have managed to snuff out many stricter proposals. The industry has battled consumer-protection issues at public utilities commissions, state legislatures and in the courts.
"The complaints from wireless customers are as strong as ever," says Dian Grueneich, a California Public Utilities Commission member who has pushed for tougher regulations. "Yet they feel they've got the political strength to fight any regulation, anywhere it pops up."
In Arizona, the Corporation Commission sought unsuccessfully in 2004 to enact a law that would have authorized the state agency to investigate consumer complaints.
"If they are dissatisfied enough, then they can switch companies," Arizona Senate president Ken Bennett says.
Industry representatives agree. For example, Cingular entices consumers with its own "bill of rights" that offers a 30-day return policy and the rollover of unused minutes from month to month.
"We consider it part of our competitive advantage," says Mike Bennett, Cingular's executive director of consumer and government affairs. "We don't want regulations requiring these things. That would take away our advantage."