Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yesterday we celebrated all the great things that Israel is and has accomplished in our 62 years of existence. Lots of people composed “62 things I love about Israel” lists, several of which appeared in newspapers and websites.

Only one such list -- as far as I saw, anyway – mentioned anything about one of Israel’s big assets: that we are not a litigious society.

Which means that when the newborn arrives with some defect – heaven forbid, spit, spit, spit – the first thought Israeli parents have is not, ‘We’re gonna sue the pants off the doctor and take the hospital to the cleaners.”

It means that when we don’t get the job, we don’t sue anybody for discrimination.

It means that when we’re mixed up in a car crash, we rarely decide to turn this lemon into lemonade by suing the other driver, the State as well as highway safety officials.

Simply put, the notion that lawsuits can be used as an alternative version of the lottery hasn’t caught on here. Yet.

That’s good.

Except that there are a few things that need fixing, and occasionally, a well-placed lawsuit might be the most effective way to do it.

Remember that when Dick the Butcher, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI said, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”, the context is that what he and Cade were trying to do was take over as rulers, something they couldn’t accomplish if there were lawyers who’d object. Occasionally lawyers do some good. (And yes, I spent 35 years as a lawyer, and once in a while I probably did some good, too.)

That said, trying to solve a problem by filing a lawsuit is rarely a good idea – although I ran into one of situations myself last week in which it might indeed be necessary.

My problem isn’t new. In fact I’ve been aware of the situation for years, mostly because I’m an inveterate reader of community email lists. I’ve seen other people complaining about this, over and over. It’s just that I’d never experienced it myself.

What happened was that I opened my online credit card statement and saw a charge for $30.29 that I knew I hadn’t made or authorized. My Visa had honored a payment to “012 Smile”, which is what one of the ISP – Internet Service Providers for you in Rio Linda – calls itself. I don’t have 012 Smile. I have Netvision. And of course also on my Visa statement there was a payment to Netvision -- $29.02. The difference was, Netvision provides my internet service. 012 Smile does not.

But here’s the dirty little secret. Almost eight years ago I did contract with the 012 Smile people – although they called themselves something different then. I used their services for three years – and stopped them only when I switched to a cable internet connection and found that Netvision offered a better deal.

I switched ISP’s – and of course duly notified the Smile people. They tried to win me back, I said no, thanks. They finally gave me up – I would henceforth use another ISP.

What they didn’t do was to stop billing me for their service.

After that, the Smile people acted like hydras – every month they’d bill me, which is to say, they’d charge my credit card. Every month – or just about every month – I’d call and scream. They’d promised not to do it again. Month after month they promised. Month after month they kept billing me.

Now understand, I was fighting this in a language I hadn’t mastered. Even finding a human to talk to was difficult. So finally I had a friend call – an Israeli, no American accent – who made various and sundry threats. He wormed his way up to some manager type, who ultimately apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. No more charges, he promised.

It worked. For awhile.

Two more years passed and I’d almost forgotten about it when – wham! – I checked my credit card statement again, and once again the Smile people had billed me for “services” they hadn’t provided for nearly three years! On their own, they’d resurrected my credit card number and started charging me.

Again I went through the process – asked my Israeli friend for help again. He called, obtained their apology as well as their promise to stop. Again I forgot about it.

Last month, do you believe? They were back! The Smile people billed me for ISP for services they had not provided – almost six years after I’d quit. Again, on their own initiative, they’d dug out my Visa number and started billing me again.

This time I have a US bank that’s much easier to deal with – Chase, which has such excellent customer service I sometimes wonder if it’s really a bank. Online, I challenged the charge, and with a few hours Chase notified me they had reversed it and credited my account. Not only that, they said they’d also located a similar charge for the month before, and did I wish to challenge that one too? Huh – how did I miss that? Yes, of course I did.

The problem may or may not be solved – I may have to do this every month.

But here’s the funny thing. The same day I was dealing with Chase, TWO other Israelis posted email messages warning their counterparts of similar false charges. They advised everyone to check their credit card statements. Both warned that “012 Smile” had recently charged their credit cards for service they hadn’t provided – and in fact had not provided for many years.

Our problems with this ISP is -- unfortunately – not unique. In fact, it may be just about impossible to ever stop this particular kind of ISP abuse. Bad as the Smile fraud is, it’s common. I may very well have the same problem if I ever tried to leave Netvision. Once these ruthless pirates get their claws into your credit card information, they will bill you, at their option, every time they think they can get away with it.

One of the sad tales another Israeli told said that after battling this for month after month, the only alternative he saw was to cancel his credit card entirely and get a different one. He gave up. He couldn’t find any other way to stop the unauthorized charges.

The problem is part of one of Israel’s remaining deficiencies: the concept of “customer service” is as rare as bagels over here. Yes, there are a few businesses who treat their customers well, most of them ‘mom ‘n pops’ who have grasped the wisdom of being nice to customers. There are others – I’ve praised IKEA, who treats customers well. But IKEA is a foreign corporation, not Israeli. They came into the country with a different mindset.

Here and there, individuals have sued these various ISP’s in Israel’s rudimentary version of Small Claims Court – and they won. But that’s a highly inefficient way of handling the problem. One person manages to score a victory – that does absolutely nothing to stop the ISP from continuing to abuse millions of other customers. (And besides, I’m just enough of a cynic to wonder if, even after they won, if the ISP really did stop billing them. Maybe not.)

This is a problem that cries out for action. Not another law – theft is already illegal in Israel. So is fraud. It’s that the enforcement of these particular laws – against powerful corporations, on behalf of mere customers – isn’t anybody’s priority. (Why not? Well, I have bleak thoughts about that, too.)

As far as I can see, the only thing that might work is to make it so uncomfortable for these companies to continue this obnoxious practice that they’d quit. A well-timed class action suit filed by some snarling, merciless and relentless group of lawyers might do the trick. If in fact these companies knew they’d be sued -- and incur horrendous legal fees – every time they falsely billed some former customer, sooner or later they’d stop doing it. It would no longer be profitable.

The reason they submit false claims now is because they can. Sure, here and there they have to make a refund. But I’d guess that for about 98% of the false claims they make, they get away with it for at least a month or two. That’s a powerful incentive to continue the fraud.

Class action suits are almost never my remedy of choice. I know very well that in any such litigation, the customers who were defrauded would ultimately be awarded something like coupons entitling them to two months free service, while the lawyers would walk off with millions in “fees”. That’s the way those things work.

But. It might stop the abuse. If simple morality doesn’t work – and obviously it doesn’t, among ISP’s – then we need to try something else.

This might be the time when what we need is a snarling lawyer. One who can’t be bought off.

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