Broadband, Short Shrift

The telecoms go after customer debts - real or perceived - with no holds barred. How a dispute over an Internet modem can bar you from leaving the country

When A. dropped HOT as his television and Internet service provider, the company sent a technician to pick up the company's multichannel converters and television remotes, but refused to take any equipment related to the Internet connection. Instead he told A. to throw it out. Six months later, A. received a phone call from a lawyer who told him he was in debt to HOT because he hadn't returned the Internet modem. A. hadn't received notice from HOT or anyone else stating that he needed to return it. The lawyer demanded A. pay for the modem within 24 hours, and threatened that if he didn't the case would be transferred to the collection bureau. A. offered to give the lawyer the modem, but the latter refused.

This is one of many complaints about telecommunications companies' aggressive collection tactics received by the Israel Consumer Council or reported on online forums or in the media. On Tapuz's online consumer forum, for instance, a woman identifying herself as Ilanit wrote, "In December 2011 I received a letter informing me I'd been blocked from leaving the country. After I called to check, it turned out that one DBS Satellite Services [i.e. the Yes telecom company], via the Neeman & Co. Law Office, had launched a collection process against me, claiming that I hadn't returned Yes its converter when I left the company six years ago.

"That claim is completely baseless," she added in the online post. "The company sent a delivery boy to my apartment and he took it. Two years ago I moved, and I threw out lots of old paperwork so I don't have the form from Yes anymore ... When I asked how it was possible that I was being banned from leaving the country and facing a collection process without any warning, I was told the law office had a notice I had signed acknowledging that I had received [warning]. It turned out that the notice was signed by someone, but I have no idea who he is. The woman with whom I spoke said maybe it was my father. They launched a collection process, they blocked me from leaving the country, they did me a horrible injustice without me even knowing what they were brewing up and without giving me the opportunity to respond."

Ilanit wrote that the company was now demanding a sum that had swelled to NIS 2,500. "On Thursday I spoke with a customer service representative at Yes," she said. "She said the company wasn't responsible and that the case was already out of their control; that it was in the hands of the Neeman Law Office now."

After the story was publicized on Tapuz and Facebook, Yes canceled the debt.

Ilanit's case isn't an isolated incident, said the Consumer Council. "The council receives complaints that the cable and satellite television companies use aggressive collection techniques, passing cases on to attorneys and the collection bureau, even when the debt is in dispute," the council stated.

But it's not just HOT and Yes. Other communications companies are also accused of jumping to involve attorneys. A man named Yair wrote to the Consumer Council, "I received a letter from a lawyer demanding I pay a NIS 333 debt to Bezeq, and threatening to send the case to the collection bureau if I didn't." In that case, Bezeq was demanding the money over a modem, which apparently had not been returned; Yair acknowledge that it probably had been sent to another company, Netvision, by accident. The company informed Yair that he owed them money for his Bezeq line and equipment, plus NIS 170 for the law office that was handling the collection process. "I asked why I hadn't been contacted to pay the debt before the case was passed on to lawyers, since I hadn't known the debt had existed," he wrote to the council. "I was told I'd been sent several letters to an address on Kehilat Lodz Street in Tel Aviv. I've never lived at that address. The phone line was at a house in Moshav Yigal."

270,000 cases

There are lots of Yairs and Ilanits, and the modus operandi is familiar. A communications company states that a customer or former customer is in debt, sometimes justifiably and sometimes wrongly. At that point, the company is supposed to inform the customer. The companies argue that they do so via several means - text message, voice messages sent to telephones, and letters - but the evidence indicates that these notices frequently never arrive.

At this point the company passes the case on to a law office. All the telecom companies work with a list of firms to collect debt. Some of these firms have made debt collection their main business and if you call the office you reach an answering system that starts, "If you want to pay a debt to Mekorot [Water Company], press 1; for Cellcom, press 2," and so on. The law firm contacts the customer by phone or in writing. The tone is generally aggressive and full of threats. The firm often has little information about the actual debt, so it winds up phrasing it along the lines of "debt over equipment." When the customer calls the telecom to find out what the debt is for, he or she is generally told that information can't be provided because the case has been passed on to the law firm. In the process, the debt starts to balloon and in many cases can become many times its original size.

The next phase is passing the case on to the collection bureau. The bureau's spokeswoman stated that there are currently 270,000 open cases launched by the four veteran cell-phone companies (Partner Communications, Cellcom, Pelephone and Yes ). She declined to give more specific information, explaining that this could "damage privacy." Whose privacy, exactly? That's not clear.

A year ago, a probe found that Partner had 29,000 open collection cases totaling NIS 253 million, and that the average debt was NIS 8,600. The reason the average debt is so high is that the figure includes corporate customers, such as businesses that failed; the average debt for private customers is generally less. Every so often, the communications companies launch a broad collection effort in conjunction with the collection bureau. In one 2011 operation, Pelephone took in NIS 19 million, and Cellcom and Partner took in NIS 13.5 million each. The collection bureau has heavy-duty tools to make sure people pay: blocking bank accounts, limiting credit card usage, forbidding passport renewal, and barring departure from the country. Obviously, it's unnecessary to note how difficult it is for a customer to get his money back when a communications company owes him.

As a group, the telecoms encounter payment issues with an average of 20,000 customers a month. Often the problems are quick and easy to solve, stemming from a change in payment method, for instance. Of those cases, an average of 4,000 are more complex and are passed on to external collection authorities. The Knesset recently approved an amendment that would allow communications companies to expedite the collection process in cases where the debt is less than NIS 10,000, by allowing them to skip the phase involving lawyers. This also suits customers, since it saves them the legal expenses.

Don't be scared

The most important rule when you find yourself facing a threatening communications company is not to be scared. Many customers buckle under threats from lawyers and simply pay up. But the companies make mistakes, sometimes the debt isn't real, and you can fight back. Take one Ofer Ogash, a corporate customer at Cellcom who had 10 phone lines. When Ogash decided to transfer his account to Partner, Cellcom responded by stating that he owed it NIS 45,000 and launched proceedings against him via the collection bureau. "Cellcom launched an expedited process, but you can oppose that," said Ogash. "It's a simple form, and you just write your reason for opposing the process. I added a declaration as well."

Ogash filled out the form by hand, stating, "I do not owe Cellcom money, and I was not presented documents indicating otherwise. Cellcom owes me money over charges carried out contrary to verbal agreements, and is refusing to issue me a breakdown of my calls." Ogash stated that while he did not owe Cellcom money, he would pay if it could prove that he did. The case came before a judge, who sent the sides to present him with documents. That's when Cellcom asked to close the case. "Don't give up," advised Ogash. "The companies send out lots of collection requests. Some people get caught in their net. But if the customer is insistent, demands to see proof, it's not worth their effort anymore and they close the case."

But the problem is with the system, and not just a matter of customers standing up for their rights. The Consumer Council stated, "The regulator needs to address the issue of the multichannel television companies' use of collection methods via their licenses, in order to force these companies to conduct minimal checks into the nature of the debt and minimal efforts to contact the customer before transferring the case to a lawyer."

Indeed, the Communications Ministry is looking into the matter and intends to set new collection policies for the companies. "Following complaints, the ministry is examining whether the telecoms are too quick to turn to external lawyers in order to collect on debts - a practice that can double or triple the sum customers owe," it stated.

'The company doesn't profit'

TheMarker asked all the aforementioned companies for their response. Yes stated, "The company would be happy if it didn't need to use collection methods against people who don't pay. The company does not profit from these methods - rather, they cost it money. Most of the people in debt are aware of this from the very first moment, and would be better off if they simply met their commitments."

HOT stated, "HOT's collection process involves several stages, most of which involve informing customers that they owe money." Customers are informed immediately via text message, notices that appear on their television screens, letters and phone calls, it added. "If all these methods fail, or if a customer repeatedly refuses to reach an agreement, the customer's service is cut off and only afterward is the matter passed on to an external company. The company constantly monitors the service of the external law firms [that manage the collection process]