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.
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