A wireless communications company that signed a deal with a Fairfax County watchdog agency to curb alleged unfair business practices remains the subject of consumer complaints, moving the firm closer to facing serious government reprimands.
VMC Communications, based in Falls Church, entered into a written agreement -- known as an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance -- with the Fairfax County Department of Telecommunications in early November after complaints alleging false advertising, hidden fees and high-pressure sales tactics. Under the agreement's terms, the company agreed not to engage in unfair business practices. It was required to tell customers about all charges and offer a cancellation period of three business days.
Nevertheless, complaints about the company have continued to come into the Better Business Bureau, said Edward J. Johnson III, president of the bureau.
"What is of concern is not only the alarming increase in the volume of complaints but more importantly, the repeated pattern of questionable business practices utilized by this firm," he said.
The two-year-old communications company, which operates in spacious quarters on the second floor of an office building in Falls Church, sells cellular phone service for MCI and AT&T. Nokia, Sony and other brand-name phones are offered free with a one-year contract. In July, the company said it had more than 54,000 customers.
Rick Rahim, president and owner of VMC, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Complaints to the consumer affairs division in Fairfax County, which has worked extensively with Johnson, represent just a small portion of the total complaints, said Paulette Neas, chief of investigating and licensing in the Fairfax County Department of Telecommunications' Consumer Services Division.
"We can only handle those that come to our office. But there are people in other parts of Virginia who also have complaints," Neas said, adding that those complaints are referred to the proper jurisdictions or to the state office of consumer affairs.
Andy Alvarez, program manager for the state consumer affairs office, said his department has received 30 complaints since February 1998. The Federal Communications Commission has received more than a dozen since late 1998.
Neas said future complaints filed with her office will warrant a written warning to VMC. If the warning is not heeded, the company may be taken to court, she said.
"We're working with the Better Business Bureau to serve the consumers and checking to see if other complaints roll in," she said.
In July, an article in The Washington Post reported that VMC was the ninth most complained-about company in the Washington area, with 48 complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau since December 1998. Currently, it is the sixth most complained-about company, Johnson said, with more than 30 complaints since July.
Consumers continue to report instances of high-pressure sales tactics from Rahim and other customer service representatives, as well as the failure of the representatives to disclose "key facts pertinent to the service at the point of sale," Johnson said.
The company, which advertises in local newspapers and uses direct mail, offers a free cellular phone with a one-year contract. The package includes free weekends and evenings, call waiting, caller identification and no start-up fees. The ad also states the company will "deliver your phone tomorrow" and that there's "no need to visit our office." In July, the ad did not mention a $25 delivery charge. Now, it simply states that there is a small fee for the service.
In July, Rahim downplayed complaints from unsatisfied customers because his company, which had sold more than 54,000 phones, couldn't "make everybody happy." He also said the Better Business Bureau complaints came from less than 1 percent of his customer base and the company would not "spend [its] time thinking about it."
Deana Smith of Rockville said she called VMC after receiving one of its coupons in the mail. She was told a credit check would first be performed and that if she passed, she would be eligible for a cellular phone and low rates.
"An hour later I called back and I was told I had been activated," said Smith, 45. "I didn't give them permission to activate me. I hadn't even made up my mind yet."
Smith tried to cancel the account but was told there would be a $200 cancellation fee. The fee, which was $75 in July, was not disclosed to her, she said.
"And then I was laughed at and was told that if I didn't pay I'd be reported to the credit bureau," she said. "That's unfair and I don't deserve to be treated that way."
Johnson said he believes the company won't change its practices any time soon.
"I'm pretty certain we'll continue to get a flow of complaints," he said. "One of the fundamental core precepts in having a successful company is having satisfied customers."