SAN DIEGO (CN) - San Diego-based BBG Communications, which has a "virtual monopoly" on pay phones in airports and train stations around the world, advertises $1 per minute rates for long-distance calls, but charges callers' credit and debit cards more than $10 per minute, a class action claims in Federal Court. "BBG is fully aware of this unconscionable conduct," and when people complain, it "attempts to obfuscate who is the responsible company," the class claims.
"BBG has a virtual monopoly on pay telephones," the complaint states, with more than 350,000 of them around the world. "Even the ubiquitous red telephone boxes in London are operated by BBG, although nowhere is there any indication that is the case."
BBG "advertises in large print that domestic or international calls would be only at the rate of a euro or dollar per minute, with pictures of credit card logos, with a tiny fine print disclosure saying to call for such rates," the complaint states. "When a call is dialed or connected, at no time are consumers automatically advised what fees defendants will charge."
Not until customers receive their credit card statements do they see that BBG typically bills that "at fees over $10 per minute," the complaint states. "BBG rakes in million of dollars in profits as a result of this practice, as they handle over 350,000 pay phones, including the iconic London telephone booths, and process 300 million minutes of calls per month. Even if only a small percentage of those minutes are calls made using a credit or debit card, based on the outrageous per minute charges, this can still add up to well over $15 million each month."
The complaint continues: "If anyone tries to dispute such charges by calling the telephone number listed on their credit card statements, BBG then attempts to obfuscate who is the responsible company. BBG's address does not appear on the credit card statement, BBG operators are instructed not to volunteer the company name or where the company is located or to clarify if the caller has called the responsible company that billed him or her unless the customer gives his or her credit card number, tell consumers as they told plaintiff(s) to contact BBG Zurich, a shall company with no real business location, or say that the company is Call International, Call To International, Faircall, International Calling Services, International Satellite Communications, National Telephone Collection Services, NTCS or other names. Many customers that have already been charged are obviously reluctant to provide their confidential credit card information to BBG representatives over the phone, preventing many consumers from filing a written complaint.
"BBG is fully aware of this unconscionable conduct. Thousands of complaint documenting this exact same practice have been lodged with the company's Customer Service Representatives ('CSRs') who are all located and supervised in a centralized call center in Tijuana, Mexico, by complaints online, or by complaints to the Better Business Bureau or with MasterCard or Visa. BBG keeps electronic records of these complaints. In fact, BBG's complaint levels are so high that they have been given an 'F' rating from the BBB, and if a customer calls MasterCard or Visa to complain about charges from BBG, the card companies three-way call through to BBG's California offices and they are directed by the company to specific individuals to handle such complaints. For those consumers who persevere through these obstacles, BBG instructs operators to give an automatic 30% refund of the unconscionable charges they impose. However, in violation of California law, BBG records such confidential communications without such customers' advance authorization or consent."
Named plaintiff Vlastimil Sajfr says he was charged $54.33 for a 1-minute domestic call in Frankfurt, Germany. Sajfr, a resident of Mountain View, Calif., says he tried to call using coins, but received an automated message telling him to use a credit card. There were no disclosures on the payphone about charges or minimum connection fees to make a call using a credit or debit card. When he received his credit card statement and saw the charges, he called Visa to complain and was rerouted to a BBG representative, who told him there was a 5-minute minimum connection fee, which was why he was charged more than $50 for one minute.
The second named plaintiff, David Keeports, says he was charged $150 for two calls totaling 7 minutes.
"No state or federal regulatory agency has either authorized this conduct or has primary, exclusive or any jurisdiction over the wrongful conduct at issue herein not can provide the complete relief prayed for in this matter, as the relevant state and federal regulatory agencies possess neither exclusive nor primary jurisdiction over the billing or disclosure methods of such charges, or have 'de-tariffed' the regulatory scheme for such telephones such that there is no basis or reason to refer this matter to either the FCC or any state regulatory agency," the complaint states.
The class claims that BBG customer representatives who do not follow obfuscatory script can be punished with a three-day suspension from work.
BBG's ostensible corporate headquarters is in San Ysidro, Calif., on the Mexican border, but its corporate headquarters and principal place of business is in San Diego, according to the complaint. "BBG and its affiliated companies are part of a privately held company owned and operated by the Galicot family, either directly or through alter ego shell corporations they control," the complaint states.
The class seeks restitution, accounting, an injunction and damages for breach of contract, violations of consumer and business laws, unjust enrichment, and violations of California wiretap law.
The class is represented by Alan Mansfield with the Consumer Law Group of California in San Diego.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.