The Naughty Nabobs of Nobelcom: a melodrama in several parts
Jul 27, 2002 (Updated Sep 21, 2005)
Despite a regrettable penchant for personal indiscretion and indulgence, I have been remarkably fortunate in my life: Ive managed to escape from any number of ill-advised peccadilloes with no worse payment than a splitting headache or a course of antibiotics. Despite a plethora of warnings and cautionary statistics, my online experience has been much the same. Ive waved my credit card around like a drunken salesman at a topless bar, yet Ive been rewarded for my folly with exceptionally fair treatment, receiving goods and services per my expectations far more often than not.
But man... those infrequent "nots" really gripe me. The most egregious case in which fate has turned against me unfolded over the past year or so. It involved the purchase of some long-distance telephone calling cards from those bad boys over at Nobelcom.com.
Sit back and let ol Uncle Sundogg tell you all about it, so that you dont make a similar mistake.
All I really wanted was a long distance calling card: a cheap way to make calls while away from home. I wasnt expecting Ma Bell-level sound quality or reliability or anything, just something to use in a pinch at an airport when my flight was delayed and my cell phone battery was dead, stuff like that. So I went to Google, typed in the term "cheap phone card", and thus began my Nobelcom experience.
Among the first hits that came up was a link to bestbuyingzone.com, a website that has the initial appearance of being a legitimate search engine into which you plug the type of long distance phone calling you plan to do, e.g, within continental US only, international calling, US to Azerbaijan only, whatever. While researching my material for this review, I tried recreating my original steps, and interestingly enough, regardless of which particular calling pattern I typed in, Nobelcom pops up as the provider of choice.
Okay, so bestbuyingzone is just a shill for Nobelcom Im okay with that. Besides, those Nobelcom rates looked pretty enticing, with Lower 48 rates starting at around 3 or 4 cents per minute. The Nobelcom website was pretty spiffy too, with handy tables detailing the specific features of each plan, and even an apparent customer-based rating system of 1-5 stars for things like call quality, connectivity, and customer service.
I whipped out my Visa, and in the blink of an eye received two virtual calling cards, each with an initial face value of $20. Do the math: at 3.9 cents per minute, twenty bucks bought me eight and a half hours of phone time, not including rounding and those ticky-tacky connection fees. I originally only planned to buy one card, but those wily rascals add a $2 "handling fee" for all orders less than $40. I completely fell for their pitch and rationalized buying two $20 cards to avoid the add-on fee.
Like other long distance calling cards, these worked by first dialing a toll-free access number, then punching in a lengthy string of personal account numbers. Once those numbers were validated, I entered the area code and phone number I wished to call. After that, a helpful female voice informed me how much time was left on my card, and for how long I could talk on this call.
I had some problems with the cards. The toll-free number was often busy, and I also had a lot of dropped calls or calls with such unacceptable quality (major echoing, static, etc) that I had to redial them. But for the most part, the calling cards lived up to my meager expectations.
My real complaint began when I ordered a second set of cards after the first set were exhausted. I followed the same process, ordering the cards from the Nobelcom website and receiving an email confirmation of my transaction and new access numbers.
The plot thickens:
Within a couple of weeks of ordering the new cards, the toll-free access number to which they were directed became unusable. I later discovered that the number had been taken out of service, but at the time, all I knew was that every time I tried to call the access number, I received a busy signal.
After a couple of months of sporadically attempting to use my calling cards, I contacted Nobelcoms 5-star-rated customer service department. And this is when I first got the inkling that Id unwittingly wandered into a quagmire.
There were actually two customer service numbers that accompanied my email confirmation. The first connected me to folks who were more than happy to "recharge" my card with more calling minutes, but were completely unable to address my access problems. The second number, allegedly for "technical problems or assistance", yielded a series of distinctly unsatisfying encounters with minimum wage drones empowered to do nothing more than shrug and/or forward calls. After bouncing through several of these folks, I threw enough of a snit that I was finally rewarded with an evidently ultra-secret phone number for the operations side of Nobelcoms business.
I was pleasantly surprised when, after dialing the number, I was put in contact with an earnest young man named Corey who seemed genuinely interested in my problem. After hearing my story, Corey admitted that the access number to which my cards were directed had been closed down since shortly after I purchased my cards. He was surprised that I had not received any instructions for transferring my calls to another access number, and asked me to forward him some information so that he could make the necessary arrangements do restore my service.
The plot gets unpleasantly gelatinous:
Fortunately, because all my communications had been handled via email, I still had copies of everything. I forwarded all the information to him and that was the last I ever heard from Corey. I embarked on a three month long odyssey in search of a responsible person, a decision-maker, a single individual at Nobelcom who would own up to the error that they had made, someone who would make an effort to do the right thing.
I never found that person. I spoke on the phone with people. I wrote emails to my buddy Corey. I searched the Web and found that Nobelcom is a subsidiary of Nobel Communications, Ltd, and is based in the Boston area. Further investigation with the very helpful State of Massachusetts Better Business Bureau revealed that: "Based on BBB files, this company has an unsatisfactory record with the Bureau due to unanswered complaints." No kiddin, bucko.
I wrote to J. Douglas Trimble, Director of Public Relations for Nobel Communications, Ltd, under the mistaken notion that hed want to be in the loop on this whole thing. Doug is evidently a very busy guy, because despite my detailed and impassioned plea for executive intervention, he hasnt found time to write back.
The plot congeals and solidifies into a nasty, fudgey glob:
I finally went back to the Better Business Bureau because this sort of thing seems to be within their purview. And to their credit, they contacted Nobelcom, or tried to. As indicated by the description above, Nobelcom doesnt have a real good track record about answering complaints or inquiries. The BBB folks were persistent, though, and they finally eventually pried a response out of Nobelcom. The response said that the cards were properly issued and had expired per the terms of the agreement, therefore they (Nobelcom) had no further liability.
The way this scam works, you see, is that if there is no activity on your calling card for some period of time (six months, I believe) the card expires. Of course, if you cant actually use your card, and if no one will help you solve the problem, the card is bound to expire, right? Oh, those crafty Nobelcom rapscallions! The BBB people said that in cases like this they have no authority, but they suggested I take my information to the Federal Trade Commission.
I did so, and thats where it stands today. At some point, its just not worth hassling over forty dollars, and unfortunately, I'm nearing that point. I recognize that this is precisely the way sleazebags like Nobelcom work, figuring they can rely on people like me to eventually give up in disgust, thereby allowing them to continue doing business in their shoddy, irresponsible, and ultimately dishonest way.
UPDATE: 28 July
I discovered an interesting online article published in "The Digest: The Internet Journal of the Telecom Industry". The Digest, based on their experience as a partner with Nobelcom, withdrew all banner advertising for Nobelcom as a result of similarly unethical business behaviour. http://www.thedigest.com/more/137/137-2000.html
SECOND UPDATE: 05 August
Never underestimate the power of the written word, even in an out of the way electronic cul-de-sac like Epinions.
Last week I received a personal phone call from Mr Chris Berejik, the General Manager for Nobelcom. In a very frank conversation, Mr Berejik apologized his company's performance in this situation, and explained some of the reasons why things played out the way they did. He was candid about some of the failures Nobelcom experienced and asserted that those shortcomings were behind them. In addition, he sent me a $50 phone card with one-second billing as compensation for the two $20 cards that didn't work for me. I've tried the card one time, and it seemed to work fine.
As far as I'm concerned, Mr Berejik did precisely the right thing - he didn't gloss over the failures of the past, but asked that I give them another chance. Hey, I still need to make long distance calls, and fifty bucks is fifty bucks. I'll try this card, and if it works as advertised, I'll be happy to post a more positive review of Nobelcom.
THIRD UPDATE: (later...)
The $50 card worked, sorta, but after all the other hassles I'd had with Nobelcom, I just wasn't willing to deal any more with dropped calls, interference, busy signals, etc, so I tossed the thing.
Find another phone card provider - these guys just aren't worth your time.
Read all comments (14)