WACO, Texas (CN) – The company with the pay-phone concession in the secured military area at a German airport used by U.S. troops in transit to and from combat zones rigged the phones to charge a minimum of $41 per call, even for a call that lasts just a few seconds, an Army sergeant and his wife say in a federal class action.
Sgt. Richard Corder claims BBG Communications and its affiliate BBG Global AG target U.S. troops on their way to or from Iraq and Afghanistan, who are unlikely to have cash or any other method to call home.
Corder says BBG programmed the phones to accept only cash, credit and debit cards, and does not warn of the exorbitant fees it charges.
“There is not so much as a simple sign to warn the troops what will happen once they use a credit card to make a call home,” Corder says in his complaint.
He adds: “BBG instructed individuals to rig this phone bank so that it could not accept any calling cards, either pre-paid or even ones purchased by military personnel on military bases, or to permit military personnel to access 1-800 numbers to contact long distance carriers such as AT&T. It was a deliberate move to prey on the troops. Thus, as set up by BBG, service personnel’s only realistic option was to use a credit or debit card to pay to use the phone banks to contact their families. Based on how BBG intentionally programmed these phones, military personnel had no realistic alternative available to them other than not call their loved ones to tell them they were on the way to military combat or shortly returning home. Nowhere on these phones does BBG disclose that it will automatically charge military personnel over $40.00, simply to leave a message of for a 4-second telephone call, using a credit or debit card.”
BBG and its affiliates are part of a group of companies owned and operated by the Galicot family based in San Diego and Tijuana.
According to the complaint, BBG took over the operation of most phones in the military-restricted zone of the Leipzig airport in 2008, after Leipzig became the main refueling stop for most troops in transit to or from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Corder says BBG Communications uses Switzerland-based BBG Global as “a front organization designed to avoid being held responsible for such unconscionable practices.”
Both companies are 95 percent owned by Gregorio and Rafael Galicot, who operate them from San Diego.
The complaint states: “Since 2007 tens if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops have been at the Leipzig, Germany airport where U.S. troop flights refuel, many of them overcharged for phone calls, even though they are United States military personnel both going to and coming back from military combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and this is their only opportunity to contact their relatives. The defendants operate or provide services for a bank of a significant number of pay telephones located in the secured military lounge area at that airport. Because this is a secured military area, it can only be accessed by military personnel. BBG has rigged the phones so that troops who use the phones are charged $41 at a minimum for calls, even if the call only lasts a matter of seconds. This scheme has allowed the Galicot family that owns BBG to pocket millions of dollars from our troops. The troops want their money back.
“Defendants have intentionally programmed the pay telephones located in this secured military area so that they cannot accept forms of non-cash payment other than credit and debit cards, including military-sold calling cards. Because these servicemen and women are just coming back from or heading out to long tours of duty, they in all likelihood have no change to make a coin-operated telephone call. Thus, there is only one phone bank they can use to call their loved ones and tell them they are leaving or coming home, and they have no viable option other than to use a credit or debit card to pay for the call.
“Defendants are responsible for preparing the art work on these phones and either do so or approve its use from their offices in the United States. Nowhere do defendants disclose on the telephones the fees they impose, or warn servicemen and women in advance the exorbitant amounts they will be charged, even for a call lasting just a few seconds, or even clearly and conspicuously tell them how to find out the fees. The plaintiffs, for example, were charged over $41.00 for a four-second telephone call – a charge that works out to a fee of over $615.00 a minute! Moreover, BBG has instructed the agent operator representatives, including Centris Information Services (‘Centris’) out of Longview, Texas, not to disclose automatically the amount of fees charged, unless affirmatively asked to divulge what the charge may be – even though they know at the outset the minimum charge to make a call from this phone bank will be over $40.00. This illegal and unconscionable conduct is in violation of the laws stated herein.
“BBG specifically targeted this bank of phones, previously operated by one of its joint venture partners, so that they could control them, direct their conduct at military personnel and charge the outrageous fees they unilaterally impose. BBG knew these troops were vulnerable as few if any would have proper coins much less cell phones that would work in the area upon returning from combat zones. Even within BBG this conduct was challenged as improper. But putting profits over any sense of responsibility, duty or fairness, BBG’s officers including the Galicot family members and others chose to impose unconscionable fees on military personnel on what was likely to be their first or last direct American contact in months, if not years. Defendants have made millions from this scheme, allowing their officers and directors to live in mansions while soldiers from Ft. Hood and elsewhere were forced to use their limited incomes and resources while serving our country on multiple deployments to make such calls.”
Corder, who is based at Fort Hood, says he called his wife in May from the Leipzig airport, on his way to Iraq, and paid more than $41 for a 4-second call.
“Sgt. Corder made a call to his wife Dharma from the Leipzig, Germany waiting lounge as he was heading off to military combat in Iraq in May 2011. He used his family’s joint account Visa debit card to make that telephone call, as he had no option but to use a credit or debit card. The call lasted four seconds, as he reached his wife’s cell phone voicemail. BBG charged them $41.14 for that four-second telephone call. There were no disclosures on the phone that indicated the outrageous fees BBG would impose on military personnel that used those phones.”
Corder says his wife tried to dispute the charge, but BBG would not cooperate. He says she went online and found a phone number, and “hundreds and hundreds of complaints” about BBG’s practices.
When Corder’s wife finally reached BBG, a representative asked for Corder’s debit card number and refused to take further action without it. In July, Corder’s wife sent a demand letter to BBG, who failed to respond, according to the complaint.
“This is not an isolated circumstance, but is the practice undertaken by BBG targeted at those who serve our country with distinction. BBG has received similar calls from service personnel and their families nationwide complaining of such charges, but has consistently refused to fully refund such amounts,” the complaint states.
Corder says he represents thousands of military personnel members who, since at least 2008, used the BBG-operated phones in the secure military area at Leipzig and were overcharged.
Corder says BBG charges a $15 “connection fee” and a minimum charge of $25 for 5 minutes, regardless of call duration. He says BBG does not post these uniform charges anywhere on its phones and instructs its representatives not to disclose them unless directly asked about them.
Corder adds: “As a result of programming the phones in this way, defendants have been able to charge unconscionable price premiums and drain money from the bank accounts of military personnel who have limited incomes. Defendants are aware of numerous complaints over this practice, since, as noted above, they have received similar calls and complaints about these charges, both internally and from military personnel and their families. Defendants thus have had the above material information in their possession for years, but have not stopped such practices so they can continue to support their personal extravagance at the expense of our troops, being unjustly enriched in the process.”
The 30-page complaint includes statements from a dozen other GIs and spouses, complaining of the “insulting” treatment. The final excerpt, from a mother whose son was charged $151 for a phone call on his first deployment, concludes: “More people need to step up and write their senators … and let them put an end to this fraudulent scam.”
The Corders seek class certification, restitution and damages for breach of contract, fraud and unjust enrichment, and they want BBG enjoined from deceptive business practices.
Their lead counsel is Jim Dunnam of Waco, assisted by co-counsel from Houston, San Diego, and New York, N.Y.