On the hook for expensive calls

Cell phone customers got stung with big bills months after making international calls.

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Kuevi Ekue-Hettah, left, of St. Louis Park, and Frank Dogbe of Minneapolis held up the phones that once allowed them to call their native Togo at no charge.

Photo: James Eli Shiffer, Star Tribune

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Last year, word spread quickly among immigrants from the west African nation of Togo that a T-Mobile cell phone plan let them call home for free as long as they had a particular Samsung phone. These immigrants ditched their phone cards, signed up for T-Mobile, and suddenly far-flung parents and cousins were flooded with calls from loved ones in the United States.

After months of free calls, the bills turned into monsters. In February, Kuevi Ekue-Hettah, a computer operator from St. Louis Park, saw his monthly bill leap from $144 to $782. For Abou Mamah, a postal clerk from Burnsville, the bill shot from $90 to $709. And Koffi Amouzou, a nurse in Omaha, couldn't sleep for two days after getting his February phone bill: a whopping $10,957.

The changes came without warning. Callers were suddenly paying as much as $1.99 per minute to talk to mom.

A T-Mobile spokeswoman acknowledged that company representatives may have mistakenly led customers to believe they could make free international calls if they used the Wi-Fi network. For some customers with big international bills, the company is now trimming up to 75 percent of disputed charges.

That's not an acceptable solution to Ekue-Hettah and Frank Dogbe, who are organizing disgruntled T-Mobile customers. Dogbe, who lives in Minneapolis and owns a cleaning company, filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. Ekue-Hettah included the names of 95 customers nationwide in his complaints to Attorney General Lori Swanson and the Better Business Bureau. They said they have received "thousands" of e-mails and calls from others stung by the bills.

"It's not just about me. It's about everybody else," Ekue-Hettah said. "You don't treat your customers that way."

T-Mobile maintains that customers should have known better. The company said some people figured out that using their phones in flight mode made it possible to make international calls over the Internet without using T-Mobile's towers, which meant no charges.

"This has now been stopped and these customers are charged as provided in their rate plan and Terms and Conditions of Service for all phone calls made over the Wi-Fi network," T-Mobile said in a statement.

The company didn't accuse customers of intentionally manipulating the system.

The controversy is an argument for greater disclosure by cell phone companies about what customers are signing up for, said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, a Washington advocacy group. "People do not expect to get a wireless bill back that's the size of a used car for a month of service," Kelsey said. "It's just not common sense."

The dispute comes at a time of tumult in the wireless world. There's new competition from the spread of phones that can make cheap calls using wireless Internet connections instead of cell towers. Meanwhile, consumer groups and the FCC are pressuring cell phone companies to disclose in plain English how much their services cost, instead of burying the details in fine print.

T-Mobile says its authority to charge for international Wi-Fi calls shows up in section 28 of the "terms and conditions" online: "If you have the Wi-Fi Calling add-on feature and use the Wi-Fi Calling service outside of the U.S., calls to U.S. numbers are not included as part of the add-on feature and are charged under your Rate Plan; calls to international numbers are charged under international rates."

Still, a spokeswoman for T-Mobile said customers may have been falsely reassured by its own representatives, who may have told them that all Wi-Fi calls were free. That was true under one plan for domestic calls, but not international, she said. Representatives may not have informed customers of the distinction.

Ekue-Hettah was careful about making international calls when he first signed up with T-Mobile in November. After making one Wi-Fi call to Togo, he repeatedly checked his bill online to see if he was charged for the conversation. He wasn't. Amouzou said he checked with three T-Mobile representatives before signing onto the plan and giving one of the phones to his cousin, a cabdriver in Chicago.

The cab-driving cousin has a mother in Ghana, and he called that West African country 260 times between Dec. 10 and Jan. 9.

T-Mobile started tracking international Wi-Fi calls for the first time in January, said Krista Berlincourt of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, a media relations firm for T-Mobile.

  • RESOLVING A BILLING DISPUTE

    While cell phone carriers hold many of the cards in a billing dispute, you have a few of your own. Here are some things you can do:

    • Read all the fine print before you sign up for phone service.

    • Document all discussions, including the names of the agents and any commitments they make to you. If unsatisfied, ask to speak to a supervisor.

    • As a last resort, bring in a third party. The Better Business Bureau will ask the company for an explanation. Go to tinyurl.com/dtqny. The FCC, who regulates cell phone carriers, can mediate disputes. File a complaint at tinyurl.com/gc48v. The FTC keeps track of complaints by company, which may lead to prosecutions. Go to tinyurl.com/d7watp.

    JANE FRIEDMANN
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