How phone sales can lead to confusion

Published June 10, 2007

Q: I signed up for service with DirecTV over the phone. I think the salesperson misrepresented the offer.

When the first bill came, it was more than two times what I expected. I called customer service for an explanation and was told that the program I'd been sold wasn't available at DirecTV. I canceled the service.

I'm now threatened with my account going to collections if I don't pay a cancellation penalty.

Can DirecTV put consumers in this situation without any recourse?

Gary Trombley

A: DirecTV's salespeople can't misrepresent its products or services in a way that defrauds the customer.

Outbound sales calls answered by a customer must be recorded, by law, according to St. Petersburg Times call center manager Paul Coffey. The Times discloses to customers that a sales transaction is being recorded. The only proof of the conversation and transaction is that recording. The rules are different if a sale takes place during a call initiated by a customer.

If an offer is legally binding, consumers need to be careful. If I'm interested in an offer made by phone, I should ask to have it mailed to me in writing. That way I can read through everything on my own and decide if I'm still interested.

If a solicitor won't send me the offer, or tries to pressure me by saying it's good for only the next hour, I'd decline.

The problem with phone offers is that misunderstandings are easy. Sales reps have their scripts. They've made the same pitch hundreds of times. It's easy for them to forget that the customer is hearing it for just the first time. And it's easy for us to remember only certain points.

Bobby Vernon, customer care manager at DirecTV, explained it this way. "There's a lot of information to share at any point of sale, and I'm sure in most cases the customer probably only remembers three things: what date the services will be installed, how much it will cost, and how many TVs will be connected." He explained that you were under the impression you would receive three unique discounts to your account. "There's no systemic way for us to make that happen, " he said.

All the fees have been reversed on your account. Vernon said you were contacted directly and are satisfied with the resolution.

Finding the restroom

Q: In April, my friend and I bought ice cream at a Tarpon Springs business near the Sponge Docks. We asked to use the restroom and were refused.

The lady in charge told us there was a restroom about a block away.

I showed her an Action column I had that states all businesses must provide sanitary facilities free of charge under Administrative Code 10D-10.037 and F.S. 381.522. She said that rule didn't apply to her business.

Is the statute still in effect?

Jack Bequette

A. The column you refer to ran in 1994. I'm amazed you just happened to have it with you.

The statute is still in effect, but it only provides that if facilities are available to the public, they must be free of charge.

It's the Florida Administrative Code that required every business serving the public to make restrooms available to patrons. That code was repealed Aug. 7, 1996, according to FAC spokesman Sterling Ivey.

F.S. 509.221 calls for establishments serving food to have bathroom facilities available to the public. But there are exceptions.

Under F.S. 509.013 (7), when a business is part of a single complex of buildings "owned, managed, controlled, or operated under one business name, " it need not provide facilities to patrons. This would apply to any shopping mall or a place like BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg. Facilities must be provided somewhere in the complex, not necessarily in the business itself.

Perhaps the ice cream shop you visited fell under this provision.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. Write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.