Daily Israel Report

Attorney Says 'Persistence Pays' in Cell Phone Consumer Rights

A South African lawyer who made aliyah to Israel encourages new immigrants not to give up when fighting a cell phone company.
By Chana Ya'ar
First Publish: 8/22/2012, 7:08 PM

Jerusalem attorney Saul Sackstein
Jerusalem attorney Saul Sackstein
Israel news photo: courtesy of Saul Sackstein

A Jerusalem-based lawyer who made aliyah to Israel from an English-speaking country is encouraging new immigrants not to give up their consumer rights when fighting a cell phone company.

Attorney Saul Sackstein said in an interview Wednesday afternoon with Arutz Sheva that if a consumer persists long enough, justice will prevail. Many of the larger Israeli cell phone companies seem to rely on consumer burnout – or the naivete that marks the "greenhorn" immigrant – to protect them from irate customers picking up on their costly mistakes, and even initiating litigation over massive billing errors.

“Some mistakes really are unintended and caused by simple incompetence at the customer service level,” comments Natalie J., a former employee at a major Israeli cell phone company. “But every now and then, a worker will take advantage of an unwary customer.” It was Natalie, a friend of "J.," who first double-checked the desperate new immigrant's skyrocketing cell phone bills and found it was likely that the latter was involved. She advised her to contact an attorney.

"When J. came to me with a story that Orange – supposedly the best of the cellphone companies in the country – was billing her for thousands of shekels more than she owed, claiming it was for other clients' calls, I was somewhat skeptical,” Sackstein said.

"It didn't help that as a new immigrant from the United States, she didn't know Hebrew, and was living in the periphery, far from the center of Israel. She was already on the verge of totally giving up on Israel and returning to America after having received warning letters from the lawyers at Orange and paid thousands of shekels under protest to avoid legal action against her.

"In fact, I admit that when the Orange customer service in Jerusalem did finally agree to speak to me, after turning me away the first time for “not having had the correct power of attorney” – whatever that was supposed to mean – I myself began my conversation with the words, 'I'm not really sure about this strange story...'”

However, Sackstein related that within an hour he was moved up from the “young, vague and recently-discharged-from-the-army representatives” to an office with a senior manager.

"I realized then that something had obviously gone horribly wrong,” Sackstein said. “In fact, the same manager openly admitted that the seemingly banal matter of checking the veracity of my client's phone bill was “beyond his jurisdiction” and that he'd “never in all his years at Orange seen anything like it.”

From there, Sackstein said he found himself slogging his way through contacts in the company's Financial Department. After “endless waiting on the phone line, and after each time punching an endless option of buttons in order to reach them,” the attorney eventually discovered that in fact, the amounts appearing on J.'s monthly bills bore no resemblance to the amounts deducted from her credit card.

The attorney was also obligated by the company, as a precondition for returning any refund, to produce the client's monthly VISA bills to document Orange's own billing – “as if Orange had absolutely no idea how much money they had actually taken from their customer,” he remarked in amazement.

It took pages of faxes, VISA printouts, two lawyer's letters and several heated phone calls from the attorney – “including one with a threat that I'd go to the media” – but J. finally received a full refund of NIS 12,000 for which she had apparently been over-billed. The refund arrived unannounced, with no letter of explanation and no apology, “not even an advance notice that it had been approved,” Sackstein commented.

"I can sadly say, after more than two decades of living here, that there are certain lessons to be learnt from this story,” he added. Among them, he said, is that “these large, almost omnipotent organizations which have open access to our bank accounts and credit cards, cannot really be trusted – and in fact should not be trusted.

Another lesson, Sackstein said, is that “life here, for better or worse, is one hard, daily struggle which can only be won by persisting and never giving up. I wonder how many others like J. are out there, new immigrants who either don't know, or who just don't have the strength for fighting these battles.”

Earlier this year, Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon succeeded in breaking the mobile phone oligarchy formerly enjoyed by the "big three" cell phone companies, Orange, Cellcom and Pelephone, opening the market to competition by smaller companies and capping the charges allowed for various services. In addition, companies can no longer penalize customers to the tune of hundreds of dollars for terminating their service and moving to another company if they decide they are dissatisfied.