Consumers complain about getting mystery phone bills for collect calls

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by Courtney Zubowski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on May 14, 2014 at 10:36 PM

Updated Friday, May 16 at 4:44 PM

HOUSTON -- Former U.S. Marine Ed Hopson has spent his life fighting for his country. Now he’s waging a different kind of war over a phone bill.

“They sent me a bill for services I never applied for,” Hopson told the KHOU 11 News I-Team.

KHOU: “How much are they saying you owe them?”

Hopson: “$61.”

The bill is from a company Hopson had never heard of for a collect call he knows that he didn’t accept nor did anyone else in his home.

And despite being threatened with lawsuits and credit problems Hopson is taking the offensive.

“You can’t coerce and intimidate me,” he told us.

In fact, the 11 News I-Team has found that all over Texas other consumers are making a similar complaint: They got a bill for collect calls they say they didn’t accept or approve.

The invoices are all from a Pasadena business called Texas Inmate Phones. It’s referred to as TIP Systems for short and it provides phone service for people behind bars.

In short, the bills are for phone calls from those who were arrested or are serving time in prison.

The problem?

“They don’t know anyone who is in prison yet they are getting billed for these calls,” Leah Napoliello with the Houston Better Business Bureau said about the company.

“It’s a huge issue,” she said. “We are seeing multiple complaints.”

And the complaints aren’t limited to Texas.

The BBB has received reports from Arkansas, Illinois and other states.

In New York, an 85-year-old blind woman on social security got a pricey invoice for a call she says she never received. In South Carolina former navy commander Rik Dilgren also received one.

“It’s either administrative incompetence or a scam. It has to be one of the two,” said Dilgren.

“It also said if I didn’t pay it I would be subject to late charges and then it would be referred to an advanced collections agency,” he added.

But then Dilgren ran into a problem many other consumers have also complained about.

He says when he tried to phone TIP Systems, each time he ended up with a voicemail box that was always full.

“You would think that if a company wanted to be paid they would answer their 1-800 number and you could talk to a person at one point,” said Dilgren.

So we went looking for someone we could talk to, but at TIP Systems official address no one was there. So we tracked down Mark Styron, the company’s owner.

KHOU: “Hi Mr. Styron. Can we talk to you about this? We’d like to get a comment from you. This is something a lot of people are having problems with.”

“It will all work out,” Styron said as he walked into his house and shut his front door.

Consumer Rik Dilgren did get his problem with TIP Systems resolved, but he says it only happened after he contacted the Better Business Bureau.

Styron did talk to us on the phone and blamed the billing problems on a third party company.

Finally, Styron admitted to having some customer service issues that he says he is working on.

UPDATE -

On May 16, 2014, KHOU 11 News received an e-mail from Mark Styron of Tip Systems that in part reads:

"I understand that it is your job to report to consumers about companies that are committing fraud in local areas, and an obvious place to find that would be from the Better Business Bureau. And now the internet provides an easy mechanism for people to voice their complaints and concerns. We realize that we have received 40 complaints on the Better Business Bureau’s website (which is less than 1% of the 30,000+ people that we bill a year) to which we have contacted them and released the following statement, which you can also find on the Better Business Bureau's site:

We use a third party company to obtain the billing name and address. In the past, we always billed the customers local phone company. In the last 18 months, the number of billable local numbers has diminished drastically. Most people do not have a billable home number, they have cell phones, Comcast, U-verse, etc... So we are allowing the calls to complete and then trying to find BNA to bill the calls. It is not 100% and very difficult. When there is a wrong BNA, they can call, email or mail it back stating this and we immediately remove their name from the bill. This is something new to us and we are trying to accommodate, but with over 300 city jails the call volumes are extremely high. Hopefully in the future we will have ways for them to handle this more efficiently.

As far as the billing process of our calls, we are an inmate phone provider trying to collect funds that were promised when accepting to use our service. Our service works when inmates are making collect phone calls out of jail to their loved ones. That means that a call has to be manually accepted from the receiving party, agreeing to pay for the charges incurred, before the call can be placed, as is the case with any collect calls…

…TIP Systems has been in business for over 25 years. We are the only company to design and patent a cord-free inmate phone to keep officers as well as inmates safe. Our goal has always been to provide safety for inmates as well as provide them a way to contact their loved ones. We have been an integral part of the jail systems in the US to provide our service.

As we stated to the Better Business Bureau, as well as to your reporter Courtney Zubowski, our billing is not always 100% accurate, as I am sure this is the case with any billing service. We do work with third party companies that help us find the most accurate information possible, and we are always looking for ways to improve this process. We also offer pre-paid accounts so that customers can keep up with, and control, how much they are spending on calls. In addition, we also make our customers aware that they can block their phone number from unwanted inmate calls - whether they be loved ones or inmates that have an incorrect phone number.

Thank you for your attempts to bring awareness to our community, as there are scams out there that people need to be aware of. TIP Systems is just not one of them. I hope that this information can assist on completing the awareness on TIP Systems and the services that we offer."

In addition, Styron disputes consumer Ed Hopson’s claim that he did not receive a call via TIP Systems. He also says that Hopson was never threatened with legal action or had his credit effected in any way by Styron’s company.

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