It seemed like a good deal to Lynette Thompson: For only $14.99 a month, she could own a cellular phone, complete with free weekends, caller ID and no activation fee. But when she decided she didn't really need a cell phone and tried to cancel her account, the good deal turned bad.
"I was going to have to pay $75 to get it canceled," the Silver Spring resident said. "I was never told I would have to pay [to cancel]."
Thompson is one of 48 known Washington area customers to file complaints against VMC Communications with the Better Business Bureau since last December. VMC, a wireless communications company based in Falls Church, is the ninth most complained-about company in the Washington area, according to Edward J. Johnson III, president of the bureau. Consumer complaints include allegations of false advertising, hidden fees and high-pressure sales tactics.
"Forty-eight is actually less than I would have thought," said Rick Rahim, president of VMC, admitting he would have expected a number closer to 100. "We're a multimillion-dollar business with thousands and thousands of happy customers, so 48 is less than 1 percent. We're not going to spend our time thinking about it. We've moved on."
The company, which advertises in local newspapers and mailed coupons, offers a free cellular phone with a one-year contract. The package includes free weekends and free three-way calling, call forwarding and call waiting with no start-up fees. The ad also states that the company will "deliver your phone tomorrow" and that there's "no need to visit our office." The ad never mentions the $25 delivery charge, though Rahim said his sales staff tells customers before the contract is filled out.
Rahim says he has more than 54,000 customers, and therefore the company must be doing something right. "We just can't make everybody happy," he said.
But Johnson said there are much larger companies with almost no complaints filed against them, adding that VMC has an unsatisfactory business performance record with the Better Business Bureau.
"It seems irresponsible to simply shrug off consumers, no matter what the the volume of complaints is, and to discount those who have legitimate disputes by saying it's only a fraction of its business especially since it's the same repeated complaints," he said.
What angered Thompson was that she was not told of the $75 cancellation fee, nor of the $25 delivery charge for VMC to bring the phone to her office.
"I was told that they didn't mention the $75 because they thought people order with good intentions," said Emma Wharton, a Herndon resident. Wharton never received her phone and was billed for a service she had not used. She ultimately complained to MCI WorldCom Inc., which was the service provider for her VMC phone, and her plan was canceled. VMC has a similar service package with AT&T.
Rahim, though, said the restrictions and obligations are stated at the beginning of each contract.
Johnson said the bureau has contacted VMC repeatedly, but "no one has responded from the company, and that's what's most alarming. This all points to a blatant disregard for what normally would be considered good customer relations."
Rahim said he received all the messages but didn't return them because the bureau "hasn't gone through the proper chain," though he did not say what he thought the proper chain is.
The bureau is not the only agency receiving complaints about VMC.
Paulette Neas, chief of Investigating and Licensing in the Fairfax County Department's Telecommunications and Consumer Services Division, said she is concerned about the increased number of complaints filed against the company. Five of the seven complaints received by the Fairfax office have been resolved in favor of the consumers, she said.
The Federal Communications Commission has received 11 complaints about VMC since late last year. Commissioners urged consumers to file complaints if problems aren't resolved, but also offered an old warning: Let the buyer beware.
"The consumers need to read carefully the terms of the contracts with the carrier. If they have any questions about it, then they need to contact the carrier to be clear about what they're signing," said Kathleen O'Brien Ham, deputy bureau chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the FCC.
Thompson, who is still being billed for a phone she doesn't use, said she's bitter over the situation. "As for trying to help out the little businessmen, I wouldn't do it again," she said. "I'm sure there are good ones, but really, who wants to find out if you've been messed with once already?"
CAPTION: VMC Communications' advertisement doesn't mention the $25 delivery fee and $75 cancellation charge that angered some customers.