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Brown Prevents Calling Card Company from Boosting Profits by Charging Hidden Fees

Friday, May 8, 2009
Contact: (415) 703-5837

Los Angeles -- Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today obtained a court order preventing Los Angeles-based Total Call International, Inc. from charging “hidden and deceptive” fees for its pre-paid calling cards.

“Total Call International has raked in profits by advertising bargain basement prices then charging exorbitant fees when their cards were used.” Brown said. “Today’s agreement safeguards California’s consumers by forcing this company to fully disclose hidden and deceptive calling card fees.”

Total Call International advertised low per-minute base rates on its calling cards and then charged consumers steep, undisclosed add-on fees and surcharges when consumers used their cards, Brown said. This significantly reduced the amount of calling time available.

Brown and the California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation and prepared a lawsuit contending that Total Call International violated a California law that specifically requires disclosure of pre-paid calling card fees, as well as California’s false advertising and unfair competition laws.

Brown and the utilities commission today filed a complaint and a stipulated judgment resolving the case. The stipulated judgment requires Total Call International to:

• Disclose all fees, add-ons, and surcharges in a clear and conspicuous manner and include those charges in the marketing of its per-minute rate.

• Maintain records and allow the Attorney General’s office to monitor its activities to determine if Total Call International is in compliance with the settlement and California Law.

• Pay civil penalties of $300,000.

During the course of the investigation, Total Call International agreed to stop charging a “real-time rate surcharges,” costing the company $1.5 million in profits. Total Call International did not admit any wrongdoing.

Calling cards, often sold at newsstands and grocery stores, are meant to be a convenient, affordable tool for users that make frequent international calls and may not have regular access to telephone service.

Calling card users should take the following steps to protect themselves:

1. Make sure you’re getting what you pay for- buy a card for a small denomination first to test out the service.
2. Check with family and friends to find out their experience with calling cards.
3. Ask the retailer if they stand behind the card if the telephone service is unsatisfactory. It’s important to remember that the store where the card is purchased from doesn’t control the quality of the service.
4. Remember that very low rates, particularly for international calls, may indicate poor customer service, or a sign that hidden fees and surcharges apply.
5. Always look for disclosures about surcharges, monthly fees, per-call access, in addition to advertised rate-per-minute.
6. Check the expiration date. Some cards expire after a certain amount of time.
7. Make sure the card comes in a sealed envelope or has a sticker covering the PIN. Otherwise, anyone who copies the PIN can use the phone time you’ve already paid for.

This is the second case that Brown has filed forcing the disclosure of fees. In 2007, Brown forced San Francisco-based Devine Communications, Inc. to disclose all hidden fees. Florida and New Jersey have also been actively prosecuting similar cases.

Today’s settlement, filed in San Francisco Superior Court is attached.

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