Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued CenturyLink on Wednesday as she alleged that the internet, phone and cable television provider frequently billed Minnesota customers at higher rates than its sales agents quoted.
Flanked by Minnesotans who have filed some of the “hundreds” of complaints about charges they say they didn’t agree to, Swanson said she’s asking a judge to impose civil penalties, order the company to change its sales practices and require that CenturyLink pay restitution to customers who were misled about their purchases.
“I want [CenturyLink] to knock it off,” Swanson said. “It is not OK for a company to quote one price and then charge another for something as basic as cable television and internet service. We want an injunction so the company stops doing this to other people, and hopefully fixes the problem for these people as well.”
The lawsuit, filed in Anoka County District Court, accuses Louisiana-based CenturyLink of committing consumer fraud and engaging in deceptive trade practices. It cites 37 specific cases in which people were overbilled by the company and denied the opportunity to reduce those charges — even when they had the original offer in writing.
CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen said in a statement that his office has been cooperating with Minnesota’s investigation and has “provided all information requested.”
“We are disappointed that the Attorney General has chosen a news conference to communicate her concerns instead of contacting CenturyLink directly,” he said. “We take these allegations seriously and will review and respond in due course.”
Swanson’s lawsuit is one of several filed around the country in recent weeks over CenturyLink’s business practices. An Arizona woman is suing the company for wrongful termination, alleging she was fired after raising concerns about CenturyLink employees signing up customers for accounts without their permission. Class-action lawsuits were filed in several western states, including California, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho, contending that CenturyLink fraudulently billed customers and then sent those customers to collection agencies.
Swanson said her office has received complaints about other telecommunications companies with particularly “aggressive” sales and business practices in Minnesota. But she said the growing number of calls about CenturyLink helped push the case to the top of her list, and prompted a yearlong investigation by her office.
“This one is top of the pile in terms of the concerns we have about the nature of their conduct and what we’re hearing from people,” she said.
Swanson said she’s particularly concerned about how long some Minnesotans say they’ve struggled to sort out their billing issues with the company. Often, the back-and-forth with customer service representatives dragged on for months or even years without resolution.
In a news conference Wednesday, Swanson played recordings of some of the phone conversations between customers and CenturyLink representatives who promised deals but later said they couldn’t deliver on them.
In one call, Kent Zoya of South St. Paul says he’s making his third call of the day to sort out why he was being billed $37 per month, rather than the $19.95 monthly rate he’d been quoted. The CenturyLink representative tells Zoya that she knows he was “misquoted” a deal but that the discount didn’t need to be honored because “they’re a gift from us to you.”
Another series of calls has CenturyLink telling Brandon Trampe of Columbia Heights that he’d pay $14.95 per month for the first 12 months of his new internet contract. When he complained about being billed $29.95 per month, CenturyLink told Trampe that he’d have to pay $200 to get out of the contract, even though the company confirmed that he’d been quoted a different price than he was charged.
“You cannot get that price,” a CenturyLink representative told Trampe on the recording. “No one at CenturyLink can get you that price.”
“OK, well, they did,” Trampe replied.
Swanson said her office got the phone recordings by issuing subpoenas to third-party vendors. She said CenturyLink did turn over some e-mails her office requested, but not phone records.
“The cooperation was pretty lackluster in terms of what they gave us,” she said.
Internal e-mails the company provided show that staff members were aware of the billing problems. One employee wrote that they received numerous complaints each day and that “maybe 1 out of 5 are quoted correctly or close enough,” adding that “I have one today quoted $39 and its [sic] over $100 monthly.”
Swanson said she’s not sure how many Minnesotans have been affected by CenturyLink billing discrepancies or how much customers could seek in restitution, but expects the numbers could be “very, very significant.” She said people should be diligent about reading their bills and getting offers in writing, no matter where they get their service.
The lawsuit was filed against several companies affiliated with CenturyLink: CenturyTel Broadband Services LLC, dba CenturyLink Broadband; Qwest Broadband Services Inc., dba CenturyLink; and Qwest Corp., dba CenturyLink QC.