September 26, 2003

Phone Customers Get Help

Foundation Funds Statewide Consumer Education and Protection Campaign

If you ever had questions or complaints about your phone bill and did not know what to do about it, imagine what it’s like if you speak little or no English.

A coalition of community-based organizations recently announced the kick-off of a statewide consumer education and protection campaign targeting Asian and Hispanic telephone customers. Beginning September, 2003, a network of over 50 grassroots organizations will begin providing information about consumer rights and remedies regarding illegal switching of phone providers, unauthorized charges and fees, telemarketing, prepaid phone cards, false and misleading advertising, and cell phones.

According to Michael Shames of Utility Consumers Action Network in San Diego, one of three lead agencies coordinating the campaign and a regular participant in CPUC proceedings, “phone companies are increasingly targeting the state’s Asian and Hispanic populations. This has led to an increase in complaints by these telecom customers about misleading sales practices, unresponsive service and assorted billing issues.”

“Though Asian and Hispanic consumers tend to spend more on phone services, they often do not fully understand what their bills mean,” said Juliet Stone of Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, another lead agency. “Language and cultural norms often lead Hispanic and Asian consumers to be hesitant to challenge unfairness and fraud, making them the ideal customers and victims.”

Two years ago, the CPUC received more than 30,000 complaints from phone customers, 57 percent of them were billing disputes, and 17 percent were for unwanted or unauthorized services. Those figures might be a lot higher if limited-English or non-English consumers could reach someone immediately in their own language. “Customers who are not routed to someone who speaks their language are more likely to hang-up,” said Ana Montes of Latinos Issues Forum, the third lead agency coordinating the campaign.

Many consumers come from countries where the phone company is run by the government. If the company says “no”, these folks often think they have no other recourse. “To avoid having their phones disconnected or the bill being sent to a collection agency, many consumers simply pay the bill,” said Stone.

This campaign is “a unique and unprecedented effort,” said Nelson Holl, Executive Director of the Foundation. It is the first statewide consumer education campaign entirely conceived and conducted by non-profit community-based organizations. Thus, in addition to providing consumers information and assistance, the campaign is building a statewide network capable of tracking abusive business practices.

The network will also use the Internet as the primary vehicle for distributing materials to participating organizations, case management and staff training and support. Rather than printing millions of brochures which soon become obsolete in a rapidly changing marketplace and legal environment, our grantees will always have accurate and up-to-date information for their constituents,” said Holl.

“Consumer fact sheets have already been translated into seven languages and more are on the way,” said Holl. “Our grantees will also assist individual consumers in as many languages, if not more. When it comes to language access on telecom issues, no federal, state, or local government can match us for coverage and reach.”

The campaign is also developing working relationships with major phone companies to resolve customer complaints more efficiently.

Participating organizations are located in every major area in California with significant Hispanic and Asian populations. A local agency serving Hispanics is HOME START, INC. Its main office is located at 5005 Texas St., Ste. 203; San Diego, CA 92108.

For more information visit the website: http://www.telecomrights.net.

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