Ken Paxton

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Texas Attorney General Abbott Takes Legal Action To Protect Internet Phone Customers

HOUSTON - Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today filed a lawsuit against Vonage, the country’s largest Internet-based telephone service provider, for failing to make clear to consumers that the company’s current service does not include access to traditional emergency 9-1-1 service.

The dangers posed by Vonage’s failure to clearly disclose the lack of traditional 9-1-1 access surfaced last month when a Houston family that subscribed to Vonage’s service tried to call 9-1-1 during a home invasion. Two victims were shot multiple times, but the victims’ daughter was never able to get through to 9-1-1.

Vonage Brochure With
No 911 Access Information
(Click to enlarge)

This Houston family’s moment of crisis signals a dire need for Vonage to clearly communicate to its Internet telephone customers that 9-1-1 access may not be available to them, said Attorney General Abbott. This is not just about bad customer service; it’s a matter of life and death.

Joyce John, who joined Attorney General Abbott today in his announcement, attempted in vain to reach 9-1-1 dispatchers in February as would-be burglars fired shots through her home and threatened her parents at gunpoint, eventually wounding them. When John hurriedly placed the call from an upstairs room, a voice recording informed her that no emergency access was available from that line. The burglars fled the scene before causing more harm, and the victims survived their injuries.

The lawsuit, filed under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, requests injunctive measures to stop Vonage Holdings Corp. a broadband phone company based in New Jersey from misrepresenting the type of emergency telephone service it offers, and the fact that the 911 dialing feature is not automatically included when a customer signs up for telephone service. The suit seeks $20,000 per violation.

The lawsuit alleges Vonage is deceiving consumers by not revealing in its television commercials, brochures or other marketing materials that customers must proactively sign up for 9-1-1 service. When consumers purchase the plan over the phone, call center salespeople also fail to disclose this important information. Even after signing up, there are limitations to the service that Vonage customers may never know about unless they read the fine print buried on the company’s Web site.

Internet-based telephone providers are unregulated by state and federal communications authorities. Though some of these providers offer 9-1-1 access, they are not required to do so. However, many consumers, like the John family, may not be aware of this fact.

Vonage advertises that its service includes 911 dialing. However, it fails to make clear that when a customer signs up for Vonage’s service, the customer does not automatically have the ability to dial 9-1-1 and be connected to emergency personnel. Instead, the customer first has to take steps to activate Vonage’s 911 dialing feature, which has significant limitations as compared to traditional 9-1-1 service.

For example, customers who dial 9-1-1 through Vonage’s 911 dialing service are routed through administrative lines at 9-1-1 call centers, not directly to call-station operators who dispatch emergency vehicles. Calls outside regular business hours may not be answered. If emergency personnel do get the call, they may not be able to identify the caller’s phone number and will not have information about the caller’s address.

Attorney General Abbott urges Internet-based phone users to contact their Internet telephone service providers immediately to determine whether they are able to dial 9-1-1.

Sales of this communication option to consumers increased tenfold from 2003 to 2004, according to industry reports. Vonage alone boasts more than 500,000 subscribers. Internet service provider EarthLink is a reseller of Vonage’s Internet telephone service.