The Checkout

Blinko: A Cellphone Charge Mystery

A colleague of mine, Dan Beyers, brought to my attention recently a charge on his Verizon Wireless bill he has been fighting for the past five months. After seeing an ad on television, his teenaged son had signed up via text message for what he thought was a one-time free joke. Soon after, however, a charge of $9.99 for "Premium TXT Messaging" appeared on dad's cell phone bill and resisted his many efforts to identify its source and to have it removed.

After several phone calls to Verizon Wireless, Beyers was told the source was something called Blinko.

Blinko, it turns out, is no fly-by-night operation but the U.S. brand name of Italian mobile entertainment company Buongiorno. Buongiorno sells ring tones, music, and games for cell phones, and claims to have 60 million paying customers and sales of about $262 million a year.

There is nothing new about allegations of mysterious and stubborn cellphone charges from mobile content companies. What makes this case different is the independent actions of hundreds of consumers seem to have made a difference.

Since Buongiorno crossed the Atlantic, it has racked up an impressive number of complaints. The Florida Attorney General's Office is investigating Buongiorno's U.S. subsidiary, which is based in Miami, over its billing practices and a class action lawsuit is pending against the company in Michigan for the same reason.

The lawsuit alleges that consumers found themselves stuck with unwanted text message and monthly charges after receiving unsolicited text messages from Blinko. When consumers contested charges with their wireless carriers, they were told they had to cancel with Blinko directly. (Verizon Wireless bills customers for Buongiorno for a cut of the monthly subscription fee, according to a Buongiorno spokesman.) Blinko tells subscribers they can cancel the service by text messaging the company "STOP." But in Beyers' case and many others, doing that repeatedly failed to do the trick and text messages and E-mails to the company went ignored. Consumers who tried the toll-free customer care number said they listened to a recorded message directing them back to the website.

Under Blinko's Terms and Conditions, the company doesn't have to talk to anyone on the phone if it doesn't want to.

By accessing and using Blinko.com or registering for or using a Service, you consent to receive communications from Blinko electronically. Although Blinko may choose to communicate with you by other means as provided in your Registration Data, Blinko may also choose to solely communicate with you electronically by email, text messaging, SMS, MMS, WAP, BREW and other means of mobile content delivery, or by posting notices on Blinko.com.

Verizon Wireless received so many complaints about Blinko and its billing practices that over the summer, the wireless carrier took the unusual step of putting Buongiorno on probation, suspending the company from signing up any more Verizon Wireless customers, according to VZW spokesman John Johnson. (Although the probation didn't stop Buongiorno from signing up Beyers' son.)

VZW asked the company to verify how many of the 200,000 VZW customers whom Blinko claimed as subscribers had gone through a "double opt-in" process by affirmatively signing up for Blinko's service twice. VZW required Blinko to use a double opt-in, Johnson said. Buongiorno couldn't verify it had double opt-ins for about 10,000 VZW customers.

After receiving still more complaints, VZW in October quietly said "Arrivederci" to Buongiorno and sent a free text message to customers who were signed up Blinko telling them they would no longer receive Blinko content or be billed for it.

In a written statement, Buongiorno said it "only wants customers who want our service."

Buongiorno cited the fact that last fall, it gave a modest grant to the National Consumers League to develop print and web material advising consumer what to watch out for when downloading mobile content. The grant was "yet another example of our effort to set a higher standard," the company's statement said.

The company boasted of being "among the first to implement" such consumer-friendly features such as a double opt-in procedure, live operators, and a policy of refunding charges "no questions asked" when notified that a child has signed up for their service without parental consent. Buongiorno also emphatically denied that it sends unsolicited text messages to recruit subscribers to its service and that it only contacts phone users who have visited Blinko.com and registered their phone number.

Sounds great but consumers appear to have had the exact opposite experience.

If you find yourself in the unwitting role of detective in a cell phone charge mystery, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

If you're dealing with a Blinko-related matter, you can also complain to the Southeast Florida Better Business Bureau and the Florida AG's Office.

By Annys Shin |  January 4, 2007; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
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Comments

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Since there is no question attached to this here is my opinion.

When you give your child a phone with unlimited capabilities, you are asking for trouble. I found this out the hard way because I gave my daughter a cell phone and I ended up paying $90+ a month for about 4 months before I go wise to the problem and fixed it.

Yes, I agree that it can be a bad experience trying to get one of these services turned off when they have been activated, but how many kids actually read and heed the fine print of rules of the content they are downloading? Zero.

It's up to us to prevent things like this from happening

The consumer is the one who is paying the bills and the consumer should be the one to suffer if they don't take the appropriate actions to prevent potential problems.

It's easy to blame the problem on a company who doesn't advertise rules well. But the true problem is with how the device is managed and the management of that device is up to the consumer.

Again, I went through this before and I blame myself for not locking the device down.

Verizon Wireless did the consumers a favor by dropping contracts with Blinko, but it has several other contacts with companies that do the same thing.

It's not Verizon's responsibility to manage the device. It's the consumers'.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 4, 2007 9:43 AM

Um, why did you pay and not your daughter? Seems to me it was her mistake, no?

Also, I just got a new phone and it comes with parental controls and also an optionalaccess pass code. Not having kids, I don't need the parental controls. Worth looking into for those who may come across this "problem".

I never had a phone when I was a kid/teen (heck I was 29 before I got my first cell phone and at the time it was because my commute was longer) and I can't understand why they're such a need now. I still see payphones!

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 4, 2007 10:12 AM

Columbia, MD,

It's obvious you don't have kids.

She is 15. She is in school. She doesn't have a job. I need to get a hold of her from time to time. She is busy (like most kids are). A phone is a way we can keep in touch.

To that end I am accountable for the phone because I pay the bills and it's in my name (not Radioactive Sushi).

The phone company is going to come after me if there is an issue with the account so I need to manage it.

Parental controls on phone are going to be a huge thing in the very near future.

See Columbia, MD, if you have kids you already have a phone for him/her to use.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 4, 2007 10:37 AM

Parents could be forgiven for being frustrated with some of this.

So far, I haven't had any problems with spurious cell phone "services", but I'd read so many horror stories that I decided to be proactive. I called up Sprint and asked for help in disabling all these texting options. I was told that it couldn't be done as disabling texting would also disable voice mail notifications.

I had to be rather insistent and get a supervisor on the phone. After 40 minutes of research on the supervisor's part, they learned that -yes- it was possible to disable access for the service pirates but still keep voice mail working.

It it a shame that even when consumers / parents try to do the right thing with some of this new technology, the tech providers themselves are often not concerned enough about the issues to keep informed or trained.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | January 4, 2007 11:22 AM

Last December just before Christmas, my wife got a new (replacement) cell phone. We are on Cingular. She started getting horoscopes, and other text messages. I know that she wouldn't/didn't knowingly sign up for any of these things. She kept the same cell number (so the previous customer problem wasn't an issue here), which she has had text-message problem free for over a year.

I looked on the bill and found a 'Direct-Bill' section that lists almost $22 in charges for premium text message content billed thourgh a company called m-Qube. I guess I have to fight the battle with Cingular to get these charges reversed.

I have never heard of the double opt-in method of signing up for this stuff. I don't think that Cingular offers that option.

Posted by: blasher | January 4, 2007 11:37 AM

Here is an interesting story.

I have two Verizon cell phones, both VCAST capable. My daughter has used both phones at one time or another so they both had the same small repeating service fees for these download. I called about the first phone and the Verizon rep had the charges removed and the features blocked. But I waited a day before I called about the second phone. This second rep told me nothing could be done by Verizon and I had to take it up with the company. After toying with him for a while (hee hee) I told him about the other phone and that I think his supervisor would like to know about the situation.

Needless to say the second phone was fixed too.

Alexandria, VA makes a very good point. These reps need to be on the same page as well and know the capabilities of the company.

Technical help varies from person to person with in the same company. That, in itself is a bad practice and maybe one of the reasons you hear two different people having two very different experiences with Verizon support. One very good and one very bad.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 4, 2007 11:56 AM

What? You CAN disable texting options??? Those &^%& LIARS!!! I can't remember how many times I've been lied to by the cell companies. Why does this not surprise me?

Posted by: Chris | January 4, 2007 12:47 PM

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http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/485561p-408789c.html

W pushes envelope on U.S. spying
New postal law lets Bush peek through your mail

Daily News Exclusive

BY JAMES GORDON MEEK
DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU

President Bush added a "signing statement" in recently passed postal reform bill that may give him new powers to pry into your mail - without a warrant.
WASHINGTON - President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant, the Daily News has learned.

The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.

That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.

Bush's move came during the winter congressional recess and a year after his secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program was first revealed. It caught Capitol Hill by surprise.

"Despite the President's statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people's mail without a warrant," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, who co-sponsored the bill.

Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.

"The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.

"The danger is they're reading Americans' mail," she said.

"You have to be concerned," agreed a career senior U.S. official who reviewed the legal underpinnings of Bush's claim. "It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we've ever known."

A top Senate Intelligence Committee aide promised, "It's something we're going to look into."

Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane reform measures. But it also explicitly reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court's approval.

Yet in his statement Bush said he will "construe" an exception, "which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection in a manner consistent ... with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances."

Bush cited as examples the need to "protect human life and safety against hazardous materials and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore denied Bush was claiming any new authority.

"In certain circumstances - such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' - the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches," she said.

Bush, however, cited "exigent circumstances" which could refer to an imminent danger or a longstanding state of emergency.

Critics point out the administration could quickly get a warrant from a criminal court or a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge to search targeted mail, and the Postal Service could block delivery in the meantime.

But the Bush White House appears to be taking no chances on a judge saying no while a terror attack is looming, national security experts agreed.

Martin said that Bush is "using the same legal reasoning to justify warrantless opening of domestic mail" as he did with warrantless eavesdropping.

Posted by: che | January 4, 2007 1:12 PM

Che - please stop "hijacking" blog comments by including your fascinating newslinks. If you have something to say about these downloads and cellphones, feel free. Otherwise, please respect other's time by restraining your posts.

Thanks!

Posted by: off-topic | January 4, 2007 1:35 PM

Wait a sec, if the cell carrier is agreeing to tack these charges onto our bills and collect the payments for the "service providers", then why shouldn't they be responsible for verifying that the customer has actually signed up for the service and agreed to the charge?

Posted by: BK | January 4, 2007 1:59 PM

I squished my purse one day and unknowingly pressed a button that downloaded an X-Men III video game on my phone. (I'd never even known there was such a thing.) Verizon Wireless told me it would not take off the charge, and then it turned out it was a monthly suscription that they had not canceled despite my phone protests. What a mess. These dudes are evil.

Posted by: Alice | January 4, 2007 2:06 PM

BK,

The cell phone companies are just middle men. Sort of like when you sign up for a credit card and you ask for the credit protection. That service is a co op between the companies. The credit card company collects the fee, skims a profit and passes it along to the company that runs the service.

I have had a company charge a credit card that I closed. I still have to make the payment because the agreement said I would pay until I cancel the service, not the credit card.

It's a scam. And a legal one at that.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 4, 2007 2:20 PM

BLASHER -

Your wife was most likely assigned a phone number that previously belonged to someone else who was signed up for those services. This is a fairly common problem but with mobile number portability it happens a bit less now. In any case, you should call Cingular and mQube and explain that it was a new phone and the messages started coming right away. mQube won't be able to credit your bill. They will send you to the service (blinko, flycell, jamster) that is sending the messages and if you leave them a message they will be able to cut you a check and send it to credit you for the error. If you get lucky and explain this to the right rep at Cingular they may credit your bill. Third party services can't do that because they don't have access and Cingular usually sends people to the third-party to resolve the situation but give it a shot. The more bad press these services get the more helpful the carriers are in resolving the problems.

Posted by: Mobile Diva | January 4, 2007 2:25 PM

Radioactive Sushi...

It actually goes well beyond "skimming", the cell phone companies they take 40-50% of the revenue from these third party charges. The skimmers are the mqube's of the world - they just take a couple points. It's the carriers who get the lion's share and are fully complacent in these scams.

Posted by: Mobile Diva | January 4, 2007 2:28 PM

TO Mobile Diva,

We have had the phone number for over a year with no problem with text messages. It just happened when she got a new phone to replace one that the earpiece didn't work (it was just usable as a speakerphone). We took the SIM card from the old phone and put it in the new phone.

Anyway, here goes with Cingular and m-Qube.

Posted by: blasher | January 4, 2007 2:43 PM

Mobile Diva,

I agree when it comes to phone companies.

These are the companies that are trying to push Internet2 QoS. Content controlled Internet. Any company powerful enough to even suggest such a concept and ask for Congressional help is getting most of the money at whatever they do or assist with.

Credit card companies are a bit different, but the concept is the same. Everyone gets a piece of the consumer's dollar.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | January 4, 2007 2:43 PM

"Double opt-in" is not the verbage of a legitimate business that has performed due-dilligence, it's the mark of a spammer. "Confirmed opt-in" is the correct terminology; anything else should raise a red flag in your mind that the organization in question might not be operating ethically.

Posted by: slashdot | January 4, 2007 5:03 PM

I see Che the blog spambot is back. I wonder what it did over the holiday break when there were no Post blogs to mess with?

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | January 4, 2007 7:30 PM

Maybe a class action suit against Verizon will be the job.

Posted by: sue the BTR | January 4, 2007 7:45 PM

"Maybe a class action suit against Verizon will be the job."

Sources at Cingular says that that's exactely what they are all afraid of people will do.

Posted by: Nick | January 4, 2007 11:28 PM

Ha at the Class Action Lawsuit. What will that result in? Free trial subscriptions to a ring-tone service? A coupon you can use at that service provider provided you sign a contract? Wait... we've ranted about this before in one of her old columns...

Posted by: Chris | January 5, 2007 12:15 PM

Radioactive Sushi --
You're right, I don't have kids. But I was one once! And not too long ago. And I was busy, too. But, if I needed a ride other then a specific set time, I called from a payphone or I walked home (and oh my goodness, I wasn't mugged, hit by a car, kidnapped either).

Why can't she babysit? Be a mother's helper? Dog sit? Cat sit? House sit? Or are all those un-cool these days? Will you let her get a job at 16? Even if it's a fastfood place? Doesn't she have money saved from birthdays/holidays/religious events? At that age, I had my own savings account and when I got my license and 10 year old USED car at 18, I had enough money to pay my own car insurance.

Quit enabling your kids folks! Say no once in a while. You're their parent, not their friend.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 5, 2007 4:21 PM

My name is Blake and I am the Head of Customer Service at Buongiorno USA, operator of Blinko.com. There are several factual inaccuracies contained in Ms. Shin's blog post from January 4, 2007 regarding our business which I would like to correct for readers of this forum.

First, let me state up front that Blinko is not the ringtone provider that subscribed Mr. Beyers' son. We can say this with confidence for the following reasons:

* Mr. Beyers' son could not have responded to one of our television ads over the past five months (as Ms. Shin references) because we have not advertised any service on television for the past year-and-a-half. Furthermore, we have never offered a Joke of the Day service.

* If Mr. Beyers' son was a subscriber of our service, and he sent the STOP instruction to our shortcode, it would have discontinued his service. Since he likely was subscribed to another ringtone company, sending the STOP instruction to our shortcode would not cancel his subscription with that provider.

Given Blinko's size as a market leader in the ringtone industry, customers (and carrier customer care representatives) occasionally confuse us with our competitors - bringing up Blinko when, in fact, the subscription service in question is with another ringtone provider altogether. Unfortunately, not all billing statements are consistent in prominently displaying the name of the ringtone provider to which the user is subscribed, which can result in Blinko being unfairly associated with the questionable actions of some of our competitors.

With regard to the Verizon Wireless situation, we regret that we were unable to provide proof of opt-in confirmation for approximately 10,000 of their consumers upon request. The email system we used at the time to communicate with subscribers for such confirmation (one we temporarily used to expedite the delivery and that we no longer use) prevented us from tracking these users. While we maintain that these were legitimate Blinko subscriptions, we offered these individuals a full refund and apologized to Verizon for the situation. Since April 06, we can track that each and all of our subscribers have completed a double opt-in process in order to subscribe to our services. We have explained this to Verizon, we have assured them this will never happen again -- and we are hopeful we will be able to continue our work with them in the near future.

Ms. Shin is right on one point -- We only want those who want our service. We do not want anyone subscribed to Blinko who doesn't want to be. We realize that we are a young company in a young industry -- but we are taking steps to set a higher standard for operators in our field.

Thank you for this opportunity to respond.

Sincerely,

Blake Ledbetter

Posted by: Blinko | January 5, 2007 5:16 PM

I swear i think blinko pays these losers such as Blake Ledbetter to post these ridiculous statements on various blogs. It is blinko that does business in a fraudulent manner. THIS IS FRAUD BY DEFINITION. What other type of company would pay its staff to signup folks up for this gargage then pay its staff to write in blogs insisting that it was not their company or that it was probably your kids or something like that! Come on!! Blinko is going down!!! PERIOD.

Posted by: Die Blinko | January 6, 2007 2:27 AM

I had a problem with these Blinko people. And it was my fault for signing up for a horoscope for fun assuming that they were a trustworthy company and it was only one text. Thankfully, my ordeal was only a week long. I texted STOP as requested to put an end to it, and they would not. So i texted STOP everyday, right after they sent me their schpiel. on the final day, I texted "STOP or I'll sue". Very simple, but maybe somebody had a little accident over there and they stopped, and my bill does not reflect their charges. My bigger fear is that I'll use my phone and then be hauled up in front of some Congressional committee because Cheney overheard something he didn't like.

Posted by: Mariposa | January 16, 2007 3:08 PM

Blinko's comment is a joke. The unsolicited text messages I received from them were asking me to sign up to receive the joke of the day. The text message said to go to blinko.com to sign up.

Posted by: Bret Thielen | January 24, 2007 5:08 PM

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Posted by: Julie | January 28, 2007 10:22 PM

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