Local Company Accused of Ripping Off U.S. Troops

An NBC News investigation looked into allegations that U.S. troops were being ripped off by a San Diego-based company

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    U.S. Army soldiers load back onto the plane after a refueling stop in Leipzig, Germany.

    An NBC News investigation looked into allegations that U.S. troops were being ripped off by a San Diego-based company.

    For years, many American service members headed to or from wars in Iraq or Afghanistan stop at a German airport in Leipzig while their military charter is refueled.

    In the secure area, there are pay phones which many use to call home, at a very high price.

    Army Sgt. Richard Corder and his unit were headed to Iraq last May. It was Corder's third tour in Iraq and his family was especially worried.

    "Both my kids were in tears. Wife was in tears when we left,” Corder told NBC News, “You know it’s a very emotional time for everybody.”

    So Corder decided to call home using pay phones inside a secure military area of the airport, and paying with his debit card.

    “We’re going to a combat zone, people get hurt there and I just wanted her to know that everything was going to be fine,” he explained. “That I was going to come home.”

    Corder left a quick message, which his wife Dharma played for NBC’s Lisa Meyers:
    "Hey honey it's just me I'm trying to call you all right love you bye."

    The Corders were charged $41 for that three-second message. Dharma Corder said she couldn’t believe it.

    At Ft. Hood, Texas last week, other soldiers said they were shocked by outrageous charges from the very same phones.

    Sgt. Jeremy Burnes paid a total of $176 for two calls he says were less than 5 minutes each.

    Now, Sgt. Corder is suing the company he claims is responsible for systematically gouging thousands of troops.

    The company, BBG communications, is headquartered in San Diego. The CEO lives near company headquarters in a $4.6 million hilltop mansion.

    Internet blogs and emails reveal complaints about BBG all the way back to 2008...from privates to lieutenant colonels.

    Among the blog posts: "Robbed by BBG," "Half our unit used this stupid phone," "Sick to my stomach thinking about how much money this company has taken from all those Marines."

    The Better Business Bureau monitors how companies treat the military. A spokesperson estimated the BBB had received more than 450 complaints about BBG over the last three years.

    The watchdog group gives BBG Communications an F rating.

    BBG's lawyer told NBC News that the company only handles billing and collections on these calls that a sister company, BBG Global, based in a small office in Switzerland, provides the actual long distance services.

    BBG Global says allegations that U.S. service members are being overcharged are "untrue and offensive"... that the phones are controlled by a German firm which charges the same rate on all credit card calls from its pay phones throughout Germany….and that customers can get the price by pressing 3.

    BBG insists that members of the military are not being singled out. That in fact making these kinds of calls is just very expensive.

    NBC News asked the largest phone company in Germany what it charges for similar operated assisted calls to the U.S.

    They said Corder’s call would have cost about $10, a fraction of the $41 he was charged.

    But that company is not the company that owns the pay phones in that airport.

    In San Diego, SGT. Corder’s attorney said there is no reason the price of these phone calls has to be so expensive.

    BBG and its attorneys are based in San Diego as well and tell us they’re not targeting troops.

    The company’s attorney agrees the phones are expensive but he says they are no more expensive than the other phone services the company offers from other parts of Germany or anywhere else in the world.

    He said the fees are similar to those charged at any pay phone in downtown San Diego on a call going to Germany.

    He also argues the rates are posted according to German law and can be checked by dialing 3 on the phones.

    Both Sgt. Corder’s attorney and the attorney for BBG also agree on a simple solution to this problem.

    That the U.S. government or its contractors should post a sign warning troops that phone calls made on these phones with a credit card are very expensive.

    NBC 7 spoke to the media officer working with the military agency transporting the troops to that location in Leipzig, U.S. Transportation Command.

    Media Officer Cynthia Bauer at U.S. Transcom said, “Air carriers under contract with DOD arranged with airport management at Leipzig-Halle to provide a comfortable area for service members to await aircraft refueling during a brief technical stop.”

    Bauer goes on to say, “There are pay phones located in the facility which are provided by an airport concession.”

    She said the Airport Authority has been asked to post signs in the area to advise service members of the phone charges.

    On Thursday, Bauer said Leipzig Airport Management advised her that the signs warning of the charges are now posted near the phones.