What to do if...you've been had
Being ripped off sucks. Here are seven steps you can take if you've been scammed.
Mon Nov 24 2008
Hi, I’m a moron. I’ll admit it. I bought the new G1 Google phone from a store just off Times Square (Cellular Stop, 566 Seventh Ave between 40th and 41st Sts, 212-730-4470) and paid nearly twice the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Fine. Selling a product above market value may be unethical but it’s not illegal. Where I really got bent over was the promise of a phony rebate and $209.94 in bogus charges, e.g., the clerks sold me features the phone already comes with (Internet access, texting capabilities, a protective case, etc.). I knew I was doomed when one surly salesperson disappeared with my BlackBerry SIM card (he was “upgrading” it for $36) and the other refused to print out an itemized receipt. It took 40 minutes to procure one, and another week to figure out that I’d been sold a bunk battery. I was enraged. But what could I do?
STEP 1: Try to solve the problem yourself
I did my homework to find out exactly what the phone came with, and called Cellular Stop to ask for a clarification on the questionable charges; they hung up on me. Three days later, I returned to the store with a friend and requested an explanation for the $209.94. The exchange escalated quickly; within minutes, six clerks encircled us, screaming and cursing and threatening to “break” our “fucking faces” if we didn’t “get the fuck out.” My friend was thrown against the wall, and one worker tried to smash my camera while another attempted to grab the receipt. (Sorry, buddy, I’d already photocopied it.) After getting booted, we called 911. Four of the six workers scattered like rats. We waited. And waited. And waited. The cops never came, so we walked to the NYPD booth in Times Square. The officers on duty expressed no surprise when we explained what happened and where, but they could only file a report for “harassment.” Quoth the sarge, “Had they broken both your legs and your nose, then maybe that’d be assault. You gotta call the Better Business Bureau, not us.” Thank you, New York’s Finest.
STEP 2: Call the city
After opening a dispute with my bank, I filed a complaint with the BBB (for this, you need the store’s licensing number, which should be posted publicly on the wall) and with the New York State Consumer Protection Board (consumer.state.ny.us). Both referred me to the Department of Consumer Affairs (nyc.gov/consumers), which is responsible for licensing electronics stores. A representative from the DOCA informed me that they’d received “numerous complaints” about Cellular Stop this year, including four that were still unresolved. My case with them is still pending.
STEP 3: Go to the top
A call placed to the customer-service division at T-Mobile confirmed that Cellular Stop is indeed an “authorized T-Mobile retailer,” which prompts the question: Why the hell are they doing business with these scumbags? The only reason I entered the store in the first place was because it had T-Mobile’s blessing, and was dressed floor to ceiling in T-Mobile paraphernalia. An agent in T-Mobile’s customer-service division was apologetic, but said there was little she could do; she did note, however, that they’d received other complaints about Cellular Stop.
Because I’m a member of the press, I contacted Peter Dobrow, a representative from T-Mobile’s media-relations team. “We need to ensure that if a customer goes into a third-party retailer, the experience is nothing less than what they’d experience in a T-Mobile store,” he says. “Your experience sickens me.” An investigation was launched within 24 hours of my call.
I also wanted to know who was behind this locally. I searched ACRIS (nyc.gov/finance), the city’s register of property records, to determine the block and lot number and landlord (Chen Lee Kwan); I then combed LexisNexis, which revealed the identities of Cellular Stop’s “chairman” or “CEO” (Avi Armout-Levy), its Marine Park, Brooklyn--based CPA, three other related company names (Cellular Stop 2, Inc.; Cellular Stop II, Inc.; and Cellular to Go, Ltd.), as well as Cellular Stop II’s eviction from a previous outpost at 160 East 48th Street.
STEP 4: Listen to what they have to say
Kwan was “out of the country” when I called, but building manager Donald Cheng said he’d heard no complaints about Cellular Stop. “We just collect the checks,” he said. “So long as they pay their rent, how they pay their rent is really none of our business.”
When I rang a number for Armout-Levy I got a man who, between long pauses, denied being Armout-Levy but confirmed the name of his accountant. When asked about Cellular Stop, he replied in broken English, “What’s a Cellular Stop? What’s this cell phone?” The CPA, meanwhile, revealed little about Armout-Levy, but said he had encouraged him to respond to me. “I don’t know what transpires with his customer base and I don’t have information on what he sells,” he said. “I’m just the accountant.”
STEP 5: Spread the word
I posted scathing reviews of Cellular Stop on Yelp, MerchantCircle and Ripoff Report, and found that I’m not alone: Ninety percent of Cellular Stop’s online reviews echo my complaints. I explained this to Jeffrey Benjamin, a consumer-protection lawyer in Forest Hills, Queens. “Sounds like theft by deception,” he says. “Car salesmen do the same thing—selling you something that’s already on the car.” He continues: “The first thing that pops to mind is class-action lawsuit.” Of course, if they declare bankruptcy, they could just reopen under another name—remember, they have four of ’em.Another fire-starting option: Contact WABC-TV’s 7 on Your Side (212-456-3146, 7online.com) and ask for an intervention. The show fields 75 to 100 phone calls a day. “Where we excel is when people have really good documentation that proves they are right and the other guy is wrong,” says producer Steve Livingstone. “That gives us the bullets to really fire away.”
Step 6: Protest
STEP 6: Protest
Now I’m pissed. Thus far, my efforts have done little to help myself or other unwitting consumers. The solution: Do it up ’60s-style—just make sure you know the law. If you’re using flyers, post them on public property and don’t litter. Do not post them on the door or window of the store itself. If you plan to rally friends to help you, rest assured that city rules about public assembly are complex and arcane. NYC loves its red tape.
Protest permits, downloadable at nyc.gov, take five to seven days to process, and may be rejected for any number of reasons. “Parading without a permit” is an arrestable offense—as is using a bullhorn or loudspeaker. (For that, you need a separate sound-device permit.) Don’t bottleneck the sidewalk, and if a cop tells you to move, do it—or you could be accused of disobeying a lawful order to disperse.
Last week, before the store opened, we plastered 80 flyers on its block—and gave an additional 20 (and a ten-spot) to a coffee-cart guy, who handed them out. At 10:30am, one of the clerks turned the corner, ripped some flyers down, and then looked right and left before furiously dialing his cell phone.
Step 7: We sent a flash mob to the store.
STEP 7: Taste revenge
If after all that you’re still feeling powerless, resort to an immature but time-honored tactic: Screw with the store. One Monday, we arranged for 25 TONY staffers to pack into Cellular Stop, pretending to be a tour group. As they overwhelmed the clerks with stupid questions, racking up seven “MP4 players” and lighting up cigarettes, one of us, pretending to speak little English, asked to buy an iPhone. Taken into a back area of the store, he was told it’d be $600, plus an extra $100 to unlock it (“so it will work in your country”), and an extra $50 for “Internet, YouTube, the works.” Total cost: $750, or $450 more than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Our man presented a Visa gift card. When it was denied, the clerk refused to return it until “you bring your passport and come back.” We said that was illegal. He told us to fuck ourselves. Finally, he threw the card back and said “get the fuck out of here.” As we filed out, a clerk told one staffer to leave the sidewalk or he’d “bash your face in”; another called us “a bunch of crazy, foreign retards.” What’s wrong, buddy? Feeling like someone’s messing with you? That must totally, totally suck.
Within 96 hours of launching its investigation, T-Mobile concluded that Cellular Stop, indeed, did not meet its “high requirements” for third-party retailers; the company has terminated its relationship with the store.
* Name has been changed
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