On Friday, July 21, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) sued major wireless carriers, namely Sprint, T-Mobile, and Nextel for what it claims are deceptive advertising practices. There’s just one problem with this claim. Where’s the deception?
In that press release, the DCA accuses carriers of specifically violating the NYC Consumer Protection Law, which, in part covers “deceptive and unfair trade practices, in part, by requiring the type size used in print ads to be clear and conspicuous to the reader. It prohibits practices that have the capacity, tendency, or effect of deceiving or misleading consumers.”
The elimination of unreadably small print is certainly a valid concern for the DCA. After all, the press release correctly reports:
According to Consumers Union, information obtained from the Federal Communications Commission shows complaints filed about wireless phone service increased nearly 38% from 2003 to 2004, with cell phone marketing nearing the top of the list, and billing problems receiving the most complaints.
But the press release reveals something more about the apparent mindset of these government busybodies. A look at the specific allegations released reveals what kind of deception they see, or if they’ve even attempted to research wireless plans at all, and leaves them wanting. For example, in one allegation about Nextel:
Nextel further deceived consumers by advertising “PLANS STARTING AT $10 PER MONTH,” or “POWERFUL PHONES STARTING AT $24.99” without clearly describing different service plans or products, and without adequately disclosing either the highest price of the advertised plan, or an “average price,” as required by law.
This would seem to beg the question: isn’t that what a sales rep is for?
Sprint isn’t spared this “logic”, either:
Sprint deceived consumers by advertising “NATIONWIDE LONG DISTANCE INCLUDED. EVERY MINUTE, EVERY DAY” when in fact, a tiny, multi-line footnote at the bottom of the advertisement indicated a charge for long distance — including the phrase “…an additional $0.25 per minute for long distance.“
That’s a roaming fee for long distance. And if you’re on an “America” roaming package, that Long Distance is included (NYC is not an affiliate market). Once more, that’s what the sales rep is for. A look at the brochure for the Chicago area reveals that the DCA is correct, but the DCA is misrepresenting the brochure. Yes, there is a promise for, as the allegation states, “nationwide long distance, every minute, every day.” However, the further point contains significantly more explanation than the busybodies at DCA would have us believe. The entire statement in question is, “Domestic off-network roaming calls are $.50 per minute with an extra $.25 per minute long-distance charge where applicable.”
Remember the original allegation:
“The New York City Consumer Protection Law broadly defines deceptive and unfair trade practices, in part, by requiring the type size used in print ads to be clear and conspicuous to the reader.”
““You can’t promise a great deal in the headline and hide the true costs in the fine print,” said DCA Acting Commissioner Jonathan Mintz.”
Sprint PCS no longer provides PDF scans of existing brochures. However, a brochure for the Chicago area has both of the above Sprint statements in the same typeface and font size on page 5.
Wireless Week is quoting Sprint Spokeswoman Tina Malloy as saying, “We had hoped to resolve their concerns through the negotiations,” she says. “[We] were disappointed that the lawsuit was filed.” Sprint does not, however, have an official comment on the lawsuit itself.
The DCA is to be applauded for being an advocate for the consumer. Perhaps next time, they’ll apply some common sense to go with that advocacy.