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Minnesota attorney general sues CenturyLink over high billing

The facade of the CenturyLink building in downtown Duluth. (News Tribune)

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s attorney general filed a lawsuit Wednesday against CenturyLink, claiming that the company had billed customers higher amounts than its sales agents had quoted.

After customers caught discrepancies on their bills, the company often refused to honor the prices quoted by sales agents, according to Attorney General Lori Swanson.

“I want the company to knock it off,” Swanson said during a news conference. “It’s not OK for a company to quote one price and then charge another.”

The state’s lawsuit gives examples of consumers quoted one price but charged another. A Blaine customer was quoted a $39.97 base monthly rate for cable service, but was charged $71.97. A Columbia Heights customer was quoted a $14.95 base monthly rate for internet service, but charged $29.95. Many customers were charged hundreds more than they were quoted over the course of several months.

“What it worked out to be, in my opinion, is satisfaction guaranteed — theirs not mine,” said CenturyLink customer Richard Thompson, 26, of Blaine.

Dale Gregorich was promised an internet bill of about $20 and received one for $69, one for $144.79, one for $54 — the list goes on. And it is a list, as the retired Eveleth teacher documented his interactions with the company before reaching out to the attorney general’s office about a year ago.

“If it’s happening to me and it’s taking this much time, what about all the people who don’t have the time to sit there on the phone?” Gregorich told the News Tribune. “We’re talking about hours and hours and hours of time on the phone.”

“Hopefully it will get straightened out,” he added. “I can’t believe I’m the only one that’s gone through this.”

The company said in a statement that it has cooperated with Swanson’s office since the investigation began.

“We are disappointed that the Attorney General has chosen a press conference to communicate her concerns instead of contacting CenturyLink directly,” the company said. “We take these allegations seriously and will review and respond in due course.”

Cooperation ‘lackluster’

Swanson described CenturyLink’s cooperation as “pretty lackluster” at best. The company refused to disclose the promotions made to Minnesota consumers, calling the request “unduly burdensome,” Swanson said. She said the company’s internal records acknowledged the extent of the problem.

“I could say maybe 1 out of 5 are quoted correctly or close enough,” one CenturyLink employee told another in an email that is quoted in the lawsuit. “I have one today quoted $39 and its (sic) over $100 monthly. So I tend to get on the defensive for the customer at times because of the large amount that are misquoted.”

Thompson said he is glad Minnesota is taking on the telecommunications giant.

“My mother isn’t going to fight this, my uncle isn’t going to fight this, my neighbors may or may not fight this, somebody’s gotta fight this,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed in Anoka County District Court, seeks an end to the alleged practices, restitution for customers and civil penalties.

CenturyLink’s alleged system of overbilling customers is simple. First, representatives promise customers false prices during sales calls, as verified by many written transactions and recorded phone calls, the Attorney General’s office states.

They also don’t tell customers about the rules and exceptions to the promotions. CenturyLink reported as many as 29 conditions and exceptions per promotion as well as up to 138 “disqualifying” combinations of promotions, Swanson said.

Consumers don’t realize they’ve been misquoted until they receive a higher bill, she added.

Then, when customers confront the company, CenturyLink provides a bevy of excuses, as outlined by the attorney general’s office:

  • Promised discounts need not be honored because they are “a gift from us to you.”
  • “You were misquoted” but “I can’t give it (the quoted price) to you, no one can.”
  • The previous agent you spoke to didn’t “even know what offers we have to offer in the first place.”
  • CenturyLink can “raise or lower the base product price” after making an offer.

Ben Meiselas, an attorney involved in a customer class-action lawsuit against CenturyLink, called the business technique a “catch me if you can” strategy.

“They take your money out, defraud you, and put the burden on you as a consumer to catch that,” said Meiselas, of the Los Angeles law firm of Geragos & Geragos. “That’s not the way business is supposed to work.”

The latest hit

Earlier this year, a former employee sued the company, alleging she was fired after raising issues with management, saying customers could be hit with fees and charges they didn’t want.

And customers in seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — have sued, alleging CenturyLink used fraudulent billing practices.

Meiselas praised Swanson’s action.

“We’re certainly proud that at the outset we brought attention to the fraud that was taking place, but also we commend government officials and especially Ms. Swanson for standing up to a big, billion-dollar bully who has defrauded her constituents,” Meiselas said.

Meiselas said they hope to get complete refunds for CenturyLink’s customers. He estimated damages could reach $12 billion.

CenturyLink is based in Louisiana and offers cable television, phone and internet services.

Formerly known as CenturyTel, the company — which acquired Qwest in 2011 — employs 2,590 people in the state of Minnesota and about 40,000 people nationwide. It serves nearly 6 million broadband subscribers in the country.

Swanson urged CenturyLink customers to ask about details of specific promotions (rules, exceptions, end dates, etc.) before signing up; to request written documentation of all quotes; to record all interactions with CenturyLink; to scrutinize their bills; and to immediately contact CenturyLink if overcharged.

The News Tribune contributed to this report.