Abused customers hang up on Telekom Specter of competition, customer challenges jolt German monopoly

March 17, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN - The orderly country that has given the world such engineering wonders as the guided missile and the Mercedes Benz has these things to boast about its national phone system: Millions of lines that can't handle Touch-Tone dialing, monthly bills that don't itemize long-distance calls, nettlesome cutoffs on data lines, legions of routinely unfriendly operators, and, lest any of this be taken for granted, some of the world's most expensive rates.

Yet, for years most Germans have quietly if grudgingly endured the ways of Deutsche Telekom, if only because there was little one could do against a state-owned monopoly.

Not any more.

Not only is grumbling growing louder, but customers who have dared to challenge Telekom in court once an exercise in futility have started to win. And with a government commitment to open the phone market to competition in 1998, some of Telekom's most beleaguered critics have begun detecting cracks in the monolith they love to hate.

Juergen Klaus, 36, a family man from Essen, blurted out a vulgar term to describe what he thinks will happen to Telekom once credible competitors arrive in 1998.

"I'll no doubt choose a different company," he said with relish.

Mr. Klaus' keen sense of anticipation stems from a series of mysteriously inflated monthly bills his family received in the spring of 1994, leaving them with unpaid charges totaling $8,000 and their phones disconnected before German journalists began taking up their cause. After nearly a year of acrimony, Telekom agreed to wipe out the bills, although the company still won't enable the Klaus phones for long-distance calling.

If pro-consumer momentum indeed gains the upper hand someday, the winners may end up looking back to this past New Year's Day as the symbolic turning point.

That was the day Telekom began charging new rates that more than doubled the cost of most local phone calls lasting more than 90 seconds. A half-hour call in the middle of a weekday, which cost about 78 cents before, went up to $1.60 (and that's in addition to a basic monthly charge for local service of about $16, roughly comparable to the monthly charge that in Maryland buys unlimited local calls).

To top that off, a glitch in Telekom software on New Year's Day resulted in customers' being overcharged by a total of $55 million. Telekom has offered some cut-rate weekend calling in atonement.

But the damage was done. The protesters were soon in full cry.

Anke Kawaschinski, 57, was so angry about the new rates that she decided to stop using her phone altogether, and hasn't for more than 10 weeks. On a recent Saturday morning, she marched in a rally of several hundred disgruntled older people and computer buffs down the Kurfuerstendamm, Berlin's main commercial thoroughfare.

"Telekom has abused its monopoly," she said.

Her mood didn't get any better when she got her phone bill for January, which charged her for having made about 35 minutes worth of calls, even though that's when she'd been sticking assiduously to her boycott.

"I don't have proof that the company has operated irregularly in the past," she said, "but it sure does make you doubt its honesty."

Andreas Schlacht, an active member of the consumer PTC organization called the Interest Group of Telekom-Injured Parties, said, "We had a case with a family that went on vacation for three weeks. A friend was coming in and watering the flowers, and the phone was locked up with a key. Their monthly bill was usually about $70, but when they got back from vacation they got a bill for about $2,000. They went to court and lost, because Telekom argued that the key could have been found and used by the friend."

The trouble with such court challenges has always been that the burden of proof was on the customer. That has occasionally led to disastrous results for complainers, according to Reinhard Christians, a Duisburg attorney who specializes in anti-Telekom lawsuits.

"In one rather peculiar case a man, having received a high telephone bill, went to the police and pressed charges against persons unknown, saying his line had been manipulated," Mr. Christians said. "The police called Telekom. Telekom said the customer was at fault. According to my papers, the police didn't investigate other than calling Telekom. The police then pressed the customer to withdraw charges, which he didn't. And now that customer is being sued for filing false charges."

But during the past few years, he said, judges, having been shown how easily Telekom's system can be manipulated by computer hackers and other would-be abusers, sometimes reversed the burden of proof.

Now, Mr. Christians said, "Chances of winning a case are well over 50 percent."

The results can be seen in his increasing caseload about 80 cases a year these days and in Telekom's growing roster of complaints. Mr. Schlacht said that, based on Telekom's own figures, customer billing complaints grew from 360,000 in 1993 to 600,000 in 1994 and 900,000 in 1995.

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