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New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs has filed a lawsuit that accuses three cellular telephone companies of using deceptive advertising to sell wireless services and equipment. The agency named Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint Spectrum LP., and T-Mobile USA Inc., as defendants, saying they promised free incoming calls, free long-distance and free cell phones when in fact those things were offered with costly conditions. Jonathan Mintz, Consumer Affair’s acting commissioner, cited examples of print ads that he called deceptive because of the way they used type size. “They’re telling you one thing in the large print and taking it away in the fine print,” Mintz said. “Any way you slice it, that’s illegal.” Mintz said cell phone customers are vulnerable to bogus ads because they often use advertising as a shortcut through the maze of plans and options the companies offer. Nicholas Fengos, a Consumer Affairs lawyer, pointed to the word “free” in bold type on one ad and then noted the fine print conditions on the “free” features. “The ‘conditions’ have to be in proximity to the word ‘free’ for this to be legal,” he said. A DCA statement cited research by Consumers Union, the consumers’ advocacy organization, which said Federal Communications Commission information shows complaints about wireless service increased nearly 38 percent from 2003 to 2004, with cell phone marketing and billing problems causing the most dissatisfaction. Fengos said the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court, will pursue civil penalties of $500 per violation, which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars from the three companies. Susan Kassapian, deputy DCA commissioner and lawyer, said the agency also prepared claims against AT&T Wireless (which has since been acquired by Cingular Wireless LLC), Cingular Wireless, and Verizon Wireless for deceptive advertising, but those companies settled and agreed to comply with the city consumer protection laws. AT&T-Cingular paid $95,000 and Verizon paid $30,000 to settle DCA claims, Kassapian said. She said attorneys general in 32 states — not including New York — recently reached an agreement with wireless companies over their advertising practices, but did not file lawsuits. Lisa Malloy, spokeswoman for Sprint, said she had not seen DCA’s lawsuit. She said her company “had been in discussions with them to try to address their concerns about our advertising. We are disappointed that they filed the lawsuit.” “We absolutely believe that our advertising complies with local and state laws,” Malloy said. “We would like to have continued our talks with them. We’ll look at the lawsuit and decide what to do next.” Scott Sloat, Nextel spokesman, denied his company engaged in deceptive advertising. “It does us no good to intentionally mislead people we are trying to make our customers,” he said. “Our advertising is truthful and straightforward.” Sloat said the city statute cited by DCA in its claims against Nextel is the only one of its kind. That rule, which requires listing of all available plans if a cheap one is used to attract customers, “would make it more confusing for people,” he said. Calls to the T-Mobile media relations office for comment were not immediately returned. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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