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Edward Kopsick, left, and Charles Kotyrba, like a lot of Americans in Germany, have fought a round with Deutsche Telekom, the largest telecommunications company in Europe. Unlike most Americans, they won, getting refunds after billing and service snafus.

Edward Kopsick, left, and Charles Kotyrba, like a lot of Americans in Germany, have fought a round with Deutsche Telekom, the largest telecommunications company in Europe. Unlike most Americans, they won, getting refunds after billing and service snafus. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Most of the time, life is sweet for Americans living in Germany — safe, orderly and predictable.

Unfortunately, it’s also predictable that sooner or later, some will find themselves at odds with Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s largest telecommunications company.

A number of Germany-based Department of Defense employees have told Stars and Stripes about overbilling and service problems. Many have given up trying to resolve them, worn down by corporate stonewalling.

Others, however, have fought back.

“I fought City Hall and won,” said Edward Kopsick, a Kaiserslautern-based civilian logistics management specialist for the Army.

Kopsick and others say Deutsche Telekom made significant billing or service errors, then refused to correct them or make refunds. For that reason, consumers should be monitoring their bill scrupulously, they say.

It’s a view that not even Deutsche Telekom’s spokesman disputes.

Compared to how business is done in the U.S., with its emphasis on consumer rights and satisfaction, “yes, there is a problem, from the German point of view,” Hans Lichtenthäler said.

In fact, his company has an ongoing initiative to change the corporate culture and become more customer friendly. “We’re trying very hard to do that,” he said.

Deutsche Telekom has been sued for a number of its practices, including a 2005 legal action brought by the German Association of Consumer Protection. That suit charged that Deutsche Telekom telemarketers changed customers’ accounts although the customers had only agreed to accept advertising materials. Lichtenthäler said it was contractors, not Telekom employees, who made the changes to gain illicit commissions. (In the interest of full disclosure, a couple of Stars and Stripes employees have either won disputes against Deutsche Telekom or its wireless subsidiary, T-Online, or have current claims against the company.)

Ultimately, Deutsche Telekom and T-Online will correct problems and even settle claims — but customers need to be patient and persistent, Kopsick said.

Kopsick said his problems started after his boss told him he had called T-Online’s customer service number and negotiated a lower rate. The tendency, Kopsick said, is for American military personnel in Germany to go to the base and sign up for the straight phone and Internet package, which costs about 26 euros per month.

So, Kopsick called Deutsche Telekom’s customer service number — 0180-530-5000 — and the person on the other end brought up his account, confirming his 26-euro rate.

“And he said, ‘We’ll give it to you for 14.95 if you stay with us.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll take that,’” Kopsick recalled.

“And he said, ‘Both accounts?’ I said, ‘What do you mean both accounts?’”

It turned out T-Online service reps had signed up Kopsick for a second line he says he didn’t know about but had been paying for for three years to the tune of about an extra 1,800 euros.

“I said, ‘I want my money back,’” Kopsick said.

“Forget it,” was T-Online’s response, he said. Even after T-Online records showed he had never used the second service, T-Online employees refused to reimburse him.

And thus began a two-month e-mail exchange — mostly in German — between Kopsick and T-Online, with customer-service reps refusing to reimburse him because he didn’t cancel the second line until November 2005, when he found out about the double billing.

In a Nov. 21, 2005, e-mail, T-Online acknowledged that starting June 15, 2002, Kopsick had paid for two lines, but only used one. But since he never wrote them to tell them, T-Online was only willing to give refunds to Jan. 1, 2004, which totaled 687.85 euros.

In the e-mail, the T-Online employee used the term “Kulanz,” or “a courtesy,” saying the company didn’t have to do it, they were just being nice.

“To me, that’s embezzlement!” Kopsick told Stars and Stripes. A graduate from the tough Virginia Military Institute, Kopsick describes himself as “not one to roll over and play dead very well.”

Neither would his friend Chuck Kotyrba, a former Army officer working as a technician in Kaiserslautern for military contractor ITT Industries. Kotyrba signed up for Deutsche Telekom cellular phone service in 2004. He quickly discovered if his prepaid balance dropped below, say, 50 euros, he could only make calls on weekends.

Kotyrba tried to tell T-Online customer service staff that he didn’t want such a service. He switched to the British-based Vodafone PLC and asked T-Online to refund the 37-euro credit remaining on his account. The company refused.

With 40 million customers in Germany alone, “there are going to be mistakes,” said Deutsche Telekom’s Lichtenthäler. “With that enormous masses of billings, there’s going to be some amount of mistakes. But it’s less than 1 percent.”

Ultimately, both men got their money. But it took Kotyrba five months, Kopsick two.

Both agree they learned that to get results, you must go straight to the top.

“You get so far up the chain, and you run into a blank wall,” Kotyrba said. One woman got so frustrated with Kotyrba’s persistence that she sent back an e-mail reply “that she refused to talk to me. She wrote, ‘If I know it’s you, I’m not going to take the call.’ I have that in writing!” he said.

Kotyrba sent that e-mail to company executives with a note “that this is the kind of customer service your company is providing. And you wonder why people are not happy.”

Ultimately, it was Rainer Beaujean, a general manager at Deutsche Telekom’s headquarters in Darmstadt, who got Kopsick his 1,800 euros.

Kotyrba took a similar tact. When he started getting form letters that included the name of a top executive, “I’d go straight to this person, and in each case, they started an inquiry,” Kotyrba said. “I’d ask them, ‘Do you realize the cost of the administrative issue?’ Somewhere up the line, a light bulb went on. I got to someone intelligent enough to realize it’s a waste of resources.”

Finally, the edict came down, “‘Pay this man his money and close his account.’ I got back a nice letter that said, ‘Sorry it took so long,’” Kotyrba said.

Kopsick said he came away from his fight convinced that everyone “should check phone bills to include Internet; call T-Online to negotiate a cheaper rate because of [growing] competition. And if all else fails, check another provider.”

Getting away from Deutsche Telekom is virtually impossible because it owns most of the phone and Internet architecture in Germany, as well as much of the cellular system. However, there is an increasing number of competitors, both cell phone companies and Internet provider services. Kopsick now uses FreeNet, an Internet-based service, for 9.90 euros per month.

Lichtenthäler said all he can hope is that customer pressure will make his company better.

“Maybe,” he said, “such an article will help us make changes.”

You do have other Web options

Fed up with your Internet service? T-Online isn’t the only game in town, and many times it’s not even the cheapest. A look at some less-expensive alternatives:

DSL Volume 1000, Arcor: basic price, 10 euros/month for a 12-month contract (www.arcor.de).DSL flat, Freenet: basic price, 16.90 euros/month for a 24-month contract. (www.freenet.de).DSL-flat, GMX: basic price, 16.99 euros/month for a 24-month contract. (www.dslweb.de).Flexi Flat 1000, Faventia: 16.99 euros/month for a three-month contract. (www.faventia.de)One warning: The listed Web sites are not in English, so you’ll need someone who speaks German to help.

— Terry Boyd


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