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Published: Friday, 10/22/2004

Area firms charged for unwanted Web service

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

When the phone bill arrived at Kent Stamm's Archbold, Ohio store with a mysterious $80 charge from a company he had never heard of, he not only complained to anyone who would listen. He polled surrounding businesses.

The results of his survey: six of seven had been slapped with similar charges in recent months. All of the incidents involved charges for designing and hosting Web sites posted by firms claiming they had received permission to do so over the telephone by someone in authority at the company.

Mr. Stamm, who operates the Pop Store, denies that. The person in "authority," he said, was actually a harried part-time clerk eager to end a conversation with an aggressive telemarketer. In response to questioning from the caller, the clerk said he was over 18 but had no authority to make decisions for the business, Mr. Stamm said.

"For a small business like mine, it doesn't behoove me to have a Web site," the owner said. Still, the firm that placed the charges refused to reverse them. And Mr. Stamm's telephone company, Sprint Communications, wouldn't remove the charges.

The scenario is nothing new for business watchdogs. The practice described by Mr. Stamm is known as Web site cramming. It received a lot of attention in the late 1990s, but has since fallen off the radar screen of the Federal Trade Commission.

The agency logged 400 complaints between July, 1998 and October, 1999, but no longer keeps track of the problem, said Claudia Bourne Farrell, an FTC spokesman.

But the experience of the businesses in Archbold shows that Web site cramming is alive and well.

The Locker Room Inc., an Archbold business that applies names and designs to T-shirts and other clothing, was luckier, getting a charge reversed in an incident a year ago, said owner Kyle Brodbeck.

The Web-hosting firm involved in Mr. Stamm's complaint, Bizopia LLC in Houston, flatly denies that it is involved in cramming.

"That is not our intent," said Craig Thomas, customer service manager.

"We contact businesses in regard to setting up a Web site. We explain to the people we speak to what our offer is, what we're providing, and we ask them if they are a person in authority." Bizopia records the conversations in case problems arise.

But the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Houston says Bizopia has an "unsatisfactory" record. The firm has been the subject of 17 complaints, all but three of which have been in the past year, said Deana Turner, BBB spokesman there. Some complaints involve allegations similar to those made by the Archbold businessman.

Two other Houston firms that set up Web sites have been accused of "cramming" by customers and given unsatisfactory BBB customer-service ratings, she said. Combined, the firms, WebSource Media and WebXites LP, have generated 266 complaints the past three years, she said.

Sprint has no other complaints about Bizopia and no evidence of wrong-doing, said spokesman Stephanie Meisse.

The carrier, which supplies local telephone service in Archbold, provides third-party billing for long-distance carriers, voice mail services, and firms providing Internet and paging services to Sprint customers, she said. In return, the firms must verify that they have registered to conduct business in Ohio and provide a toll-free customer service number.

Mr. Stamm alleges, however, that Bizopia may be violating that agreement because it isn't registered to do business in Ohio. A Blade check of records at the Ohio Secretary of State's office found no business registered under the name Bizopia.

The Bizopia customer service official promised to look into the matter, but failed to call back yesterday.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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