back to article Vonage to pay $100m for making it nearly impossible to cancel internet phone services

Vonage has agreed to cough up $100 million to customers for making it nearly impossible to cancel their internet phone service, according to a proposed court order. The Ericsson subsidiary, which provides Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to folks and small businesses, automatically bills customers for these services every …

  1. Grogan

    When I get a service I am having trouble canceling, I call the credit card company and scream fraud (whether it really is or not). I don't play games with billing. I'll ask once for a refund or correction, then after that it means war.

    My sister joined a gym in Toronto and was tricked into signing up for a "lifetime membership" (What? Who in their right mind would sign up for something like that. What if you have to move, or fall ill etc.). She had to move out of the area, and they refused to cancel the membership and kept billing. So she just called Visa and got them to stop the payments (and claw back the last 2).

    Maybe things are different in Canada, but credit card companies generally will protect you from bad behaviour.

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "My sister joined a gym in Toronto and was tricked into signing up for a "lifetime membership" "

      Tricked? Usually not. They spell out all of the terms and conditions in tiny little type on a big piece of paper that the vast majority of people don't read while hunting down the place to tick the "I agree" box and where they sign. If you don't bother to read contracts in their entirety every time before signing, you might not be able to get out of it by calling the credit card company to forbid the charges. Gyms will usually let you sign up for a one week free or minimally priced trial and have you sign a very straight forward release of liability so they don't get blamed if you hurt yourself. In the mean time, you can take the contract home and read it in your own time.

      I took a class on contract law that was focused (pun) on the sorts of contracts that photographers might be presented with. The first advice was to never sign the client's contract and if you might, know what all of the warning signs are. Things like indemnity and warranties about the photos and delivery times. I looked at one that required images made of motels to be submitted within 8 hours of completion to the head office for processing where they'll decide if the images will be accepted and the photographer paid for the job. I ran away from that one. If I do a job, I get paid regardless if they can or will use the images. If they don't like my work, they can always not book me in future. The trick is to be able to spot these sorts of clauses and understand they are there for a reason. If they tell you it's just a formality, see if they'll accept you striking those terms out since they "are never enforced". Good luck with that.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        In the UK at least, and I believe other countries, such contracts are not supported in law where they are made directly with members of the public (i.e. lay people) main terms have to be clear and reasonable.

        1. IGotOut Silver badge

          You're spot on, in a fashion.

          Consumers can rely on unfair contract laws, basically meaning you can't bury bad pratices in the fine print.

          However, businesses have no such cover, as they are expected to get legal advice before signing.

          HOWEVER, you can not, for consumer or business, overide the law of the land, regarldess of what youbsay in a contract.

    2. Dimmer

      Read the AT$T contract carefully. Be aware the "free install" does not mean that it will not cost you something to get it to your location, only to hang the box on the wall. I have seen upwards of $30k several times. Look closely for something to do with "engineering cost not included".

      XM radio is another one. You can only cancel if you talk to a live person. You will also be charged extra for that.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        "Read the AT$T contract carefully. "

        Any cell phone company with an "unlimited" plan often has defined limits stated in the official contract. You might get a court to deem that unreasonable, but it might cost you a years wages and a couple of years of your life to "win" your case.

        1. J. Cook Silver badge

          Yup. the cell phone companies bank on that (literally), and even if you get your court costs awarded back to you, you've still spent an inordinate amount of time and hassle on it which more or less makes it a pyrrhic victory at best.

  2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

    Prpgrammers Who Sold their Souls

    ... are tip-tap-typing away, implementing these dark patterns in their web pages in exchange for the money.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: Prpgrammers Who Sold their Souls

      Programmers and managers and business executives.There's a big gulf between being a hard-bitten capitalist and an out and out conman/crook.

      All those people have decided to go to the Dark Side of cynically snatching money off members of the public. They knowingly implement strategies that serve no other purpose than to scam money off people, with deliberation. This is not something they just let happen. It's not inefficiency or incompetence or carelessness. It's deliberate.

      The only difference between them and a street pick pocket is that they can get off without penalty if they're caught and they don't have to leave their cosy offices.

  3. Brian 3

    But how much money did they make doing these things? I bet that $100 mill is just a license fee in comparison.

    Yeah according to wiki annual revenue in 2020 was like $1.25 billion. They were doing this to all and sundry customers so there is simply no way $100 million covers the refunds. What about punitive damages? They were in the wrong. Why does the FTC think it is okay to license corporate wrongdoing?

  4. Blackjack Silver badge

    They paid pocket change for this so they definitely didn't learn their lesson.

    1. Mike 137 Silver badge

      Ideally ...

      "They paid pocket change"

      These corporations always do. There's never been a penalty that really hurt the perp -- even where proposed penalties are huge, there always seems to be a way to negotiate them down to coffee money.

      The most effective approach would be to [a] insist on amendment of the abuse and audit it and [b] charge a stiff (and ideally escalating) penalty per diem until the abuse stops. Somehow though I doubt this will ever come to pass in general as technology giants just have too much power (bearing in mind that not a few of them have turnovers greater than the GDP of some nations).

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Ideally ...

        I disagree. The only way to make this bite is to go for the individuals who perform the acts. The C suites need to be charged. So do the managers and coders. "Only obeying orders" has never been a defence. Yeah, go after the company ( i.e. the shareholders) too. But they're seldom the main agents.

        1. Herring`

          Re: Ideally ...

          The C-Suites had no idea what was going on.

          Although at bonus time, they are responsible for every success.

    2. Dimmer

      Even so, they paid it to the wrong people. It should go to the ones hurt. I think they call it "restitution", not "fines".

  5. Stratman

    Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

    Make it as easy to cancel Prime as it is to sign up. Same number of clickthroughs, buttons of equal prominence, no double, triple, quadruple or more negatives and make joining Prime a separate transaction as opposed to now where it's intricately entangled with making a purchase.

    1. TimMaher Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

      Excellent @stratman.

      Beat me to it.

      Have a refreshment————>

    2. Ace2 Silver badge

      Re: Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

      Once you *do* cancel Prime, trying to buy anything becomes a minefield. They stuff the “free trial of Prime” stuff into every page of the checkout process. (Or maybe they do that to everyone, I wouldn’t know.)

      1. that one in the corner Silver badge

        Re: Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

        They do it to everyone, doesn't matter if you just cancelled Prime or never had it.

        If it looks worse to you than before you had Prime, that just means you've noticed how much worse it has got whilst you were a member and not being targeted (well, not targeted to join basic Prime - but would you like full access to Prime Music?)

        For the rest of us, you know that story about boiling frogs?

      2. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

        As above, sometimes I look for stuff on Amazon in the browser, not signed in, and the amount of Prime publicity is actually ridiculous.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

      Prime example:

      Not a member.

      Purchase X, go to checkout.

      “Sign me up to Prime” is pre-checked and cost added.

      You need to Uncheck to proceed as expected.

    4. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Good. Now do the same with Amazon Prime.

      "Make it as easy to cancel Prime as it is to sign up."

      I did it the easiest way possible by not signing up in the first place nor buying anything from Amazon. I'm lucky enough to live close enough to businesses that can source just about everything, so internet buying isn't necessary. It pays to talk with shop managers, especially at hardware stores that are members of a larger co-op/franchise. The owner of the corner shop makes a run to the wholesalers about once a week and comes up with all sorts of stuff for me that he doesn't normally stock. He sometimes forgets, but he sometimes will find deals on stuff he knows I like without being asked.

  6. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Cancellation procedures

    Vonage are not the only ones to make service cancellation difficult. In the UK and the EU at least the GDPR and other privacy legislation makes cancelling services a bit easier, as you can complain to the commissioner if it is obscure or seems to be deliberately difficult. As a last resort you cans end them a registered letter instructing them to cease the service, and requiring them to amend their records as continued processing of incorrect personal data (your 'subscription') is causing you distress, and threaten them with reporting to the ICO if they take any more money or send you any more invoices. In addition, I believe that they are only allowed to charge reasonable cancellation fees for their costs, rather than make a large profit.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Cancellation procedures

      "As a last resort you cans end them a registered letter instructing them to cease the service"

      That's the first resort. Registered letter with signature, that comes back to me, so I know it's been received and when, and sometimes by whom. It's come in useful in the past.

      It's too easy for emails to be "lost" or "was it counted as spam?", and regular letters to "never arrive". Don't give the bastards any wiggle room, and always always create a paper trial. Insist on being sent a letter or at least an email with a PDF and refuse to agree to anything over the phone (recording the conversation is helpful, you know damn well they are and it's not for staff training purposes like they claim). I state outright at the beginning that nothing said or discussed constitutes any form of agreement or acceptance of services or products. May or may not have legal weight to say that, but usually the most annoying simply hang up right away so...win?

  7. LDS Silver badge

    Unless executives start to be charged for fraud, that won't stop

    Fees are no longer enough. These are plain, deliberate frauds and should be investigated as such. The risk of losing well paid jobs and some jail time would change many minds.

    1. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Re: Unless executives start to be charged for fraud, that won't stop

      CEO: I had no idea those nasty evil devs were doing this, I'll sack the lot of them. They must have been using big words to bamboozle the poor, innocent managers as well.

      1. LDS Silver badge

        Re: Unless executives start to be charged for fraud, that won't stop

        Those below will give you the evidences to avoid to get them all the blame, don't worry. They will soon learn to obtain and store requests to perform a given illegal activity.

      2. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Unless executives start to be charged for fraud, that won't stop

        I won't allow that to fly. The point of being CEO is that the buck stops with them, so either they knew and they're guilty of collusion, or they didn't know and they're guilty of negligence and incompetence. Either way, GUILTY.

        == Bring back Hanging Judge Jeffreys ==

  8. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Never Autopay

    Autopay has been sold to people as a convenience feature so they aren't wasting their time each month paying bills. Waste the time. Spend lots of time on the bills. A big reason is it keeps you connected to the things you are paying for and gives you a chance to re-evaluate whether you want to keep paying for them. If you have to look at your mortgage payment each month, you might spot that you could save a bunch of money by refinancing when interest rates drop to lower than what you currently pay.

    If the vendor doesn't have your permission to automatically charge you bank account or credit card each month (or 2 weeks, quarterly, whenever), they are in violation of some banking acts if they do. I still use pre-paid cards for some bills. There's no way to charge those accounts when they run dry so that puts a certain amount of finality to a company charging for something you'd like to cancel. I can pay some bills such as utilities at the corner shop and since I'm there a few times a week, it's easy to do. It's handy when I've been paid cash for some jobs and don't want to deposit the money in the bank but still need to keep the leccy on.

    1. Nifty Silver badge

      Re: Never Autopay

      Those pre-pay meters are the devil's work, right?

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Never Autopay

        "Those pre-pay meters are the devil's work, right?"

        I'd not want pre-paid leccy, but me and the guy in the red suit are mates otherwise.

  9. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

    "in many instances, Vonage has continued to charge them without consent,"

    Vermin Media Business did that to us - we used to have lots of circuits with them then gradually migrated away. A quarter later, when going though our financials, we noticed that they were still billing us for, what were then, quite high-speed lines.

    They claimed that the circuits were still live.

    We sent them documentation (including the original cancel requests, their response indicating the circuit was cancelled and photos of some of the sites involved) and they ignored us for at least a month.

    So we got the lawyers involved.. and not in a 'small claims court' fashion - it would have cost them a great deal of money and a whole lot of adverse publicity to fight what would have been a losing battle. They settled out of court and paid compensatory damages (which, incidentally, entirely paid for the contractor who did all the discovery work for us). Their excuse? "You didn't tell us to stop the billing"..

    And we've never had anything to do with them since. I still can't work out whether it was just a case of *massive* incompetence (and an end-result of their extremely high staff turnover) or whether it was a deliberate policy.

    1. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

      Re: "in many instances, Vonage has continued to charge them without consent,"

      "I still can't work out whether it was just a case of *massive* incompetence (and an end-result of their extremely high staff turnover) or whether it was a deliberate policy."

      The definitive answer to that is whether their signUP processes are equally crap. If so then it's probably incompetence. If not, deliberate.

      Sky are absolutely BRILLIANT at signing people up. Amazing. Everything works as it should do, the nicest and most competent people you could ever hope to meet. And yet it falls apart in spectacular fashion when you want to cancel. Ergo: deliberate.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: just a case of *massive* incompetence or deliberate policy

      Big telco?

      The answer to that either-or is a gigantic YES in flaming 60-foot tall letters.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: just a case of *massive* incompetence or deliberate policy

        "The answer to that either-or is a gigantic YES in flaming 60-foot tall letters."

        If the letters spell out "We apologize for the inconvenience", sure.

    3. Andronichus

      Re: "in many instances, Vonage has continued to charge them without consent,"

      VM does indeed do this, in a multitude of ways. Try to leave at the end of 10 years? Sure, just send us the modem back please (or we'll charge you £40). Okay, send where? Oh sure, we'll send a padded prepaid post bag to you. FIVE times they promised this and never delivered - I'd even send it back post paid myself. Sure enough the £40 charge came through as a direct debit and it is an inconvenience to fight it - so they nickel and dime each customer on termination to squeeze a little bit more. Personal anecdote perhaps? Well no, today I spoke with someone else who tried to terminate and they had exactly the same irritating story. Stems from their earlier days as NTL when they employed the same type of billing and "oh, you've contacted terminations but you never contacted billing to ask them to stop" ploy. Legal fraud, but I'm glad it is now recognised as a rort on a global scale.

  10. TonyJ Silver badge

    "...I still can't work out whether it was just a case of *massive* incompetence (and an end-result of their extremely high staff turnover) or whether it was a deliberate policy..."

    If I had to guess, it'd be the latter. Comms companies can be the absolute worst to deal with and pull this kind of crap all the time. I suspect that they believe they're too big to be sued by small companies.

  11. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

    See You Next Tuesdays.

    That is all.

  12. Slx

    That kind of practice is usually illegal in Europe, on the basis that in a contract where the two parties have unequal weight - little consumer vs big telco for example, the law will come down on the side of the consumer.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like