Jackson, Claro’s bait-and-switch scam

“Hay que gritar. Es un robo.” Carlos Slim’s boys threatened to have me arrested for shouting at them, when for the third time in a little more than a year they defrauded me. I paid my $16 and change for a month’s worth of wireless connection and I got five days. THEY programmed for a cell phone instead of a wireless modem when THEY took the chip out of said modem, punched in the code on a cell phone, then put the chip back in.

Claro.com’s bait-and-switch scam

by Eric Jackson

For me, it was the third time in a little more than a year. I got my wireless Internet modem chip recharged at the Claro.com service center in the Albrook Mall, told them that I wanted to put another month on the stick, went to the cashier and paid for a $15 card — more, with tax — the lady punched in the code for me and told me that I was set for a month, and after about five days the computer informed me that the chip had run out.

They had loaded my wireless modem chip as if it were for cell phone service. A rookie error by a company at a locale where you deal with a new person every time, a business that can’t keep employees? Occam’s Razor suggests just that.

So the next time I was in Albrook and had a bit of time to kill, I went to complain and to demand that I get the Internet time for which I had paid. I knew from past experiences that they would tell me that it had never happened before and that the problem was me, in some fashion or another, and I would not have the slightly more than $10 worth of service that was stolen from me restored.

And indeed, I was accused of stupidly buying the wrong plan, the distinctions of which they do not advertise or explain to the customers. I fact what was represented to me was 30 days of Internet connection, I paid for it, and they gave me much less. It’s a classic bait-ans switch consumer fraud.

So, is THIS how Carlos Slim became one of the world’s richest men? Two facts suggest otherwise to me:

1. If a thousand other people get rooked the way I was over the course of a year, that’s less than $40,000 in extra income for the company, with consumer ill will on the other side of the balance sheet. Multiply it how many times, and perhaps all across Slim’s telecom empire, and it still looks like peanuts to a billionaire.

2. They pull this stuff on me at Albrook, but so far never when I recharge the stick in Penonome or Coronado.

So, as much as I can cite a litany of things about Mr. Slim’s business history, I think that it’s not directly from or for him. Perhaps the people at the Albrook venue are running a scam for their profit at his expense. It’s a corporate culture thing, maybe from Slim down but perhaps residing in the sorts of people that his company has hired in Panama.

But the Arab-Mexican billionaire’s company does show a customer unfriendly face, more than the monopolistic practices that most of the clients never consider. It’s unseemly, and at odds with cultural realities that it has become popular among many Americans to deny. There are these stereotypes.

Once upon a time I got to know them as a lawyer working with clientele in Dearborn, Michigan’s Arab community and getting to know the varieties of fraud that flourished among the Palestinians and Lebanese immigrants who were uprooted in terror by the Lebanese civil war. But you know what? The older Arab community, and those who had come from less conflicted places, were rarely like that. Generosity is a big part of Arab culture. Keepíng the customers satisfied is a big part of Arab business culture. The mafia stuff that ended up in lawyers’ offices was one of the many effects of war that those who glorify it will never mention or admit. It’s the abnormality of those who have been acclimated to Hell.

And Mexicans? The conquest of the northern third of their country by the Americans has left many scars and created many realities through good and bad times ever since, with the Mexican bandit stereotypes in US culture a distortion and amplification of something that has actually existed. Now Mexico is a patchwork of war zones, with a mobbed up government whose main political parties are in the pay of the rival warlords, who are mainly in the business of moving drugs into the United States. Such is the made-in-Washington “War on Drugs,” and it reaches into almost every nook and cranny of Mexican society, such that Donald Trump could win a US election by calling Mexicans a collection of thugs. But Laura Nader, the consumer activist Ralph’s sociologist sister, once did a comparative study on how Mexicans and Americans deal with consumer complaints. The standardized “we have never seen this happen before — the problem is YOU” is a banal indictment of US corporate culture, but she didn’t find much of that in Mexico. For all of the horror stories that Americans tell about their experiences in Mexican border towns, she found a far more civilized norm in the ways that consumer complaints are resolved in most of Mexico.

Yeah, well, that was then, but now we have this globalized kleptocracy. Even worse than the people at the top are the wannabes who want to get to the top. Then there are those who have no hope of getting to the top but emulate what they think that rapacious billionaires are like because they think it’s cool. Whatever moral instruction that they may have had to the contrary did not stick. Such is the cultural wreckage of globalization on corporate terms.

In any case, the runaround that I get at the Claro center at Albrook is by traditional lights un-Arab and un-Mexican. It’s just a rootless hustle and nothing new. Read the Old Testament and the Code of Hammurabi and they get into those sorts of business mores. Get into the Gospels and it’s about a Jewish resistance to the corruption of a religious establishment that aligned itself with Roman occupation authorities, a moral revival against among other things the triumph of acquisitiveness over ethics. Martin Luther, Rabbi Hillel and Mahatma Gandhi were all moral revivalists in their own traditions who lodged similar protests. If you want to listen to the world’s real Muslim radicals these days they are not looking to recruit young men with no prospects to explode themselves among crowds leaving concerts but denouncing the decadence, false piety, loose morals and sticky fingers of the oil sheikhs who just got billions of dollars worth of arms from Donald Trump to wage their perverse Sunni jihad.

My complaint? Five-sixths of a $15 Internet service charge, times three? There are many injustices in this world that are far worse. But I am not the only one.

Meanwhile, we hear from the Varela administration that they intend to concentrate the cellular telecommunications scene here in Panama — which is already divided up in ways that create local monopolies, which do get abused. In the Central American banana republics, with their rapacious elites bolstered by death squad regimes, nobody has as many cell phone companies as Panama does, we are told. Therefore, to get in with the business and ethical standards of Honduras, Panama should drop its prohibition on one cell phone concessionaire acquiring another.

The almost stillborn competitor is Digicell. The decrepit and hated old original from the first days of Panama’s cell phone services is Cable & Wireless, the remnant of the British Empire’s imperial phone company, which has been nailed for securities fraud in the USA and kicked out of by governments in, or rendered marginal by consumers in, many a former British possession. If there is to be consolidation, it will be Claro or Spain’s Telefonica buying up weaker competitors.

The public hearings for such a move would create a good opportunity for all of us who have been cheated in one way or another by Claro.com — or any of its wireless telecom corporate colleagues — to denounce consumer fraud. It’s just smart economics and politics to object to anything that would strengthen the hands of abusive companies.

Do I want to take my complaint to one of the government institutions that’s supposed to police consumer fraud? I will look into it, but these institutions tend to be captured by the companies that they are supposed to regulate.

An even bigger problem is the limitation of Panamanian jurisprudence. The Civil Code doesn’t have anything like equity in its meaning within Common Law systems. A judge or administrative referee here can’t see a systematic injustice involving many petty offenses and fashion a remedy to be handed down in an injuction. She or he has to look at the applicable statutes and limit any decision to those narrow provision. (Surprise, surprise — when they wrote the laws about telecommunications, lobbyists for the company were on the scene and consumer advocates were not.)

An equitable solution to my complaint would involve the restoration of some 75 days of Internet connection for which I paid and which I didn’t get, but also a cease and desist order to Claro against such practices and requiring some prominent, fair and simple notices on the premises of every Claro store about the various plans that are offered, with receipts clearly spelling out what was bought and who updated the chip. But the sort of solution that typically comes out of Panama’s regulatory system and courts is a combination of restitution and fines in an amount far less than what the company brought in through its improper practice, and that ordered years later.

Shouting at petty managers who won’t look you in they eye as they lie to you because they know that you know that they are lying to you? That serves to let everyone on the premises know that everything is not right. But what Panama really needs is a consumer law revolution that makes hustlers practice their juega vivo other than in the telecommunications industry.

UPDATE: After this insulting hustle being run on me at the Claro office in the Albrook Mall, I did not pay them any money. I did go to one of their offices in Penonome the next morning, and the lady there explained to me that there had been some recent changes in plans, which were contained in a little code guide list for those who ask for it so as to load their chips from a Claro.com phone.

For $14.99 plus tax I get an “unlimited” package of 30 days worth of service with a 1.5 GB capacity. Gone is the $44 and change option of 30 days at a faster speed, which is relevant in some parts of Panama but I found to be not so different given the limited capacities of their system in my part of the boondocks. HOWEVER, they now have $14.99 smartphone plan, which is “limited” and they advertise as for 30 days of connection at 2 GB. However, with that “limited” plan you get 200 minutes that might be used at any time within a month. Of no use to me to run The Panama News, but perhaps if I want a higher speed for some video conference that might be a reasonable thing to put onto the chip of my other dongle stick.

In any case, what was run on me, and I suspect many other people, was the classic bait-and-switch consumer fraud.


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