Senator admonishes company over high phone rates charged servicemembers
Stars and Stripes March 2, 2012
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Servicemembers, who have complained about the high rates they are charged at pay phones while transiting Leipzig/Halle Airport, received support from a U.S. senator this week, when she accused the company with the contract of “seeking financial gain on the backs of our military men and women.”
A class-action lawsuit and anopen letter from Sen. Barabara Boxer, D-Calif., have thrown the spotlight on BBG Communications Inc., a San Diego-based company that operates phones in domestic and international airports, as well as the only phone bank in the military-secure area of the Leipzig/Halle Airport, according to the lawsuit.
Critics say the company is exploiting servicemembers who are less likely to have a cell phone while traveling between deployments but need to contact family members.
Brhami Corder, 25, said she and her husband, Richard, were charged $41 for a four-second voice mail he left her in May while on his way to Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
“I’m in a vulnerable state, trying to hear from my husband, and people are totally taking advantage of it,” Corder said in an interview last year.
The couple is seeking class certification for a lawsuit it filed against BBG in October, while Richard was still in Iraq. They want reimbursement for all military users, and they ask that BBG be forced to disclose its rates on each phone.
Boxer sent an open letter to BBG President Gregorio Galicot in which she urged an end to what she termed a “deceptive practice.”
“Seeking financial gain on the backs of our military men and women and their families, who make such great sacrifices, is wrong,” the letter reads. “No service member on deployment should face such excessive charges simply to talk to their loved ones.”
An average 5.8 daily flights carried more than 407,000 passengers to the Leipzig/Halle Airport on Department of Defense-chartered planes in fiscal 2011, according to U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
A spokesman for the Leipzig/Halle Airport Authority, which controls the military area, said in October that officials were aware of high credit card charges on the phones and have placed a sticker on each recommending users buy a calling card for 10 euros from a nearby shop.
However, the Corders’ complaint alleges the phones aren’t programmed to accept coins or calling cards. And Brhami Corder said she’d prefer to see the actual rates displayed on each phone terminal.
“If soldiers or whoever saw it was $10 a second, no one would use that phone,” she said. “No one’s that stupid.”
BBG has faced similar criticism in the U.S., where it operates airport payphones that often advertise low rates for coins and charge high, unadvertised rates for credit cards. The Better Business Bureau graded the company an “F” based on nearly 500 consumer complaints and the company’s failure to respond. An “F” rating is the lowest rating given by the bureau, according to its website.
Some airports have responded to complaints. Commissioners at the airport in Little Rock, Ark., voted to rescind their contract with the vendor. A Los Angeles Times story prompted the city’s airport to force the vendor to advertise its credit rate.
The Corders’ lawsuit is the fourth to claim overcharging by the company since 2010. It also names Switzerland-based BBG Global AG as a plaintiff, calling the company an off-shore “front” for BBG Communications.
BBG Global says it provides service to 350,000 pay phones worldwide, according to its website.
Corder said when she tried to resolve the charges in May, BBG personnel asked to speak to her deployed husband. She then contacted consumer attorneys John Mattes and Alan Mansfield, who run a website that gathers complaints on the company. The two men are now representing the Corders in the lawsuit.
Mattes said he’s received similar complaints from servicemembers on his website and believes the overcharges are intentional and unnecessary.
“All I can conclude is the company has made millions and millions of dollars from soldiers going through that airport,” he said.
BBG declined to comment when approached in October, instead referring a reporter to a San Diego law firm. Multiple efforts to reach someone at the firm knowledgeable about the case were unsuccessful. BBG officials could not be reached Friday.
In recent news articles, the company has been quoted as stating that price rates can be found by pressing a phone key. It also has denied targeting servicemembers.
Some military families say phone overcharges have become a regular part of deployment, if an unfair one.
“You kind of assume you’re going to have higher rates wherever you go,” said Jessica Lockhart, 25, whose husband is with the Grafenwöhr-based 172nd Separate Infantry Brigade.
Lockhart said her family paid $60 after her husband made four calls home in the course of traveling for rest and recuperation in November. The first call cost $20, and Lockhart said it lasted two minutes, at most. She wasn’t sure which airport he stopped at, she said.
Without a phone, soldiers can’t coordinate with their families for pick-up, Lockhart said.
“They can tell us all day long what day they’re supposed to be home,” she said. “Whether that happens is pretty slim.”
In Vilseck, Christine Ellsworth said BBG charged her $60 for a phone call her husband made from the Frankfurt airport’s military-secure area in 2009. The call lasted four minutes and 16 seconds. The charge was especially frustrating in light of the couple’s normal calling plan when he was in Iraq, an Internet phone service that charged $30 a month, Ellsworth said.
“It makes me very angry, because I knew he could call me for pennies,” said Ellsworth, 29. “But the phone wouldn’t allow him to, so the only other option he had was to punch in his debit card.”