ANNAPOLIS – Matthew Robb has a problem with his cell phone – he has trouble hearing the person on the other end, and often can’t even place calls.
Robb said at best he gets poor reception on his Sprint cell phone anywhere in his hometown of Frederick. He said the company’s response to his complaint is that it doesn’t guarantee reception.
“The problem with that is the only reason you get a cell phone is reception,” Robb said. “It’s not a paperweight.”
Robb recently filed a complaint with the Maryland attorney general, making him part of a growing number of Marylanders who are frustrated with their cell phones service and no longer inclined to suffer in silence.
According to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the attorney general’s office, consumer complaints in Maryland regarding cell phones rose 35 percent between 2003 and 2004 – the latest years with complete data available – from 340 to 460.
This growth mirrors the national trend. The Consumers Union found that cell phone complaints were up 38 percent from 2003 to 2004.
Analysis of the attorney general’s database shows that cell phone complaints increased 127 percent from 2000 through 2004. During that same period, the number of cell phone subscribers in Maryland increased by only 70 percent, to nearly 4 million, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Morgan Jindrich of the Consumer’s Union, an advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports, said complaints are rising because cell service hasn’t improved and companies are likely frustrating consumers.
Wireless companies’ “lack of responsiveness to consumers who have heard a lot of empty promises … (has) empowered them to take a stand to write in and complain more,” she said.
Jindrich said she expects the trend to continue “until these cell phone companies change the way they handle complaints.”
Incorrect billing was the most frequent complaint among cell phone users, 23 percent of all their complaints in the attorney general’s data.
More than one in five of the overbilling complaints were lodged against Cingular Wireless, a company that merged with AT&T Wireless in late 2003. More Maryland consumers complained about Cingular, followed by Verizon, Sprint and Cellular One, according to the data.
It’s not clear whether Cingular leads in complaints because it has more customers or because its service is worse than the other companies.
In Maryland, cell phone users are not broken down by company. Individual carriers declined to provide the number of subscribers they have in the state, calling it proprietary information. The Federal Communications Commission and the Maryland attorney general’s office both say they do not have that information. The Maryland Public Service Commission does not regulate cell phones.
Nationally, according to Securities & Exchange Commission filings, Cingular has more than 52 million subscribers; Verizon has just over 49 million. The recently merged Sprint-Nextel has 45.6 million subscribers, and Cellular One has 32 million customers.
Although Robb’s cell phone reception problem is not unusual, his story is an example of the frustrations some consumers face in having their complaints addressed once they have signed up with a cell phone company.
Initially, Robb didn’t know where to take his complaint, but then as he learned more found that he was overwhelmed by the number of places he could contact.
“Consumer complaints are scattered in 500 different directions,” Robb said. “You have … dozens of sites where you can log complaints … instead of one central source where people can complain and say how bad the service really is.”
The Consumer’s Union recommends cell phone users file their complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, their state’s attorney general, the Better Business Bureau and anywhere else that mediates complaints, Jindrich said.
“Consumers should try as many avenues as it takes to get their complaint resolved,” she said.
Robb said the lack of a single body taking complaints causes problems for consumers. “People are shouting to all different areas, so carriers have carte blanche to offer terrible service and make millions of dollars doing so,” he said.
In fact, the cell phone industry in Maryland is booming. With an estimated population of 5.5 million, more than 70 percent of Marylanders owned cell phones in 2004.
Robb, who filed his complaint with the attorney general’s office in November, still has a chance that his complaint can be resolved. But others have given up hope that the attorney general can help.
Vivian C. Mendoza, of Fort Washington, said the attorney general’s office did not help in her battle with Cingular Wireless.
Mendoza, who upgraded her daughter’s cell phone and contract in September 2004, said she was overbilled and charged nearly $2,000 for the first month’s $39.99 plan.
Mendoza said she thought her upgraded plan contained 1,000 daytime minutes, but Cingular maintained the plan was only for 45 and held her liable for the overage charges. Her account balance is now nearly $1,500 and Mendoza says she does not plan to pay it. The account has been turned over to a debt collection agency in Georgia.
Since her fight began more than a year ago, Mendoza has canceled her cell phone service but is still trying to resolve her disputed bill. She and her family do not have cell phones now.
Cingular spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman said the company is trying to help customers understand their bills so they will know in advance how many minutes they have in a billing cycle.
“Now as a new customer when you purchase a phone, you walk out with two-page document that outlines your calling plan,” Kaufman said. “It has a first bill estimate so you don’t get that sticker shock.”
Cingular customers are also able to check their available minute balances online, by calling customer service or sending a text message, Kaufman said.
Poor reception and overbilling aren’t the only types of complaints handled by the attorney general’s office. Ken Williams, of Columbia, filed a complaint about pressure tactics he said were used by a salesman.
Williams said his 18-year-old son, Jonathan, “foolishly” signed a contract last spring because of a persuasive Nextel salesman at Columbia Mall. He said his son told him the salesman had asked for Jonathan’s ID and refused to return it unless the teen signed a contract.
Jonathan repeatedly told the Nextel salesman he did not want the new phone or any service, Williams said. The Williamses had and still use Verizon as their cell phone provider.
“I was quite angry,” Williams said. “I just don’t understand why they can get away with that kind of stuff. I know they want to make sales, but I think that’s coercion.”
“And if you have a gullible 18-year-old and you don’t have a persistent dad who follows up, you could end up paying that money that they don’t deserve,” he said.
Nextel merged with Sprint in August, and company spokeswoman Lisa Malloy said she doubts the validity of Williams’ story.
“We’ve had problems with salespeople doing everything, but we’ve never heard anything about that,” Malloy said.
The attorney general’s office took Williams’ claim seriously, however, and was able to get Jonathan’s Nextel contract revoked.
Doug Harper, a minister and photographer in Annapolis, filed complaint with the attorney general’s office against Cingular for unsatisfactory service.
“They’re all crooks,” Harper said, referring to the telecommunications industry in general. “Whatever you do the system is broken.” But Harper predicted “in 10 years we won’t have a problem because satellite phones from China will be available for $6.”