Over the past 7 months since my relocation to Berlin, Germany, I have experienced my fair share of cultural shocks, of which most are positive and non-consequential, that have enriched my experience living abroad, in general.
Then there’re some negative ones, too. In most cases, they can also be chalked up to ‘growing pain’, a tuition fee if you will, to get to know the free-market system that’s kept German economy so strong and alive in spite of the status of a welfare state and the harsh global economic environment—at the expenses of fundamental consumer rights of the tens of millions living here.
As a new comer in Germany, people would warn you against putting down your signature on any legally binding contracts before poring over each word in the writing a few times over. The obvious fact is, unless you’ve had a PHD in Germanic studies, you are unable to comprehend them to full extent as a foreigner , for even the natives sometimes struggle with their meanings, much less a wide-eyed foreigner who had no prior knowledge of German like myself. Here ’s the catch. Whenever anything goes wrong, the fault inevitably goes to you in full and you stand to lose money, ranging from a couple dozens up to thousands of euros in magnitude. With the influx of foreigners in Germany in the past decade, a few corporations smelt the blood. They began to devise and implement predatory contracts aimed at ripping off the new-comers. Alas! What a pool of blood they have managed to cause at the cost of Germany’s good reputation.
I’ve paid, nay, been paying a hefty price to come to that painful realization. My disastrous experience with O2, a large telecom and network provider notorious for its cheap(er) tariff, poor connection and even poorer, if not totally non-existent customer care, is but a drop of blood in the bucket, should nonetheless serve as a cautionary tale to all the newly-arrived foreigner looking for a network provider :AVOID O2, Blau by Telefonica AT ANY COST.
Back in January ,after having been in Berlin for 2 months and grown tired of the prepaid plans for network, a friend randomly suggested I could use Blau, a sister brand of O2 under the Telefonica corporate umbrella, when I was visiting him. I told him I knew no German and would not be able to compare its plans, he said he’d help me out. Knowing just how complicated things can be in Germany without knowing the language, I took the advice. Without much discussion and objection on my part, he signed me up on the plan consisting of 3GB data, flat phone and text usage at a monthly rate of 9.99 euros for a 24 month period. I signed my name on his digital pad and all was done. Or so I thought. (Mistake #1. Lesson learnt—Don’t sign your name on any documents in Germany without understanding them to full extent!!!)
1 week later, my friend told me he had not received the sim card. On my request, he phoned them for me and was told they’d send again. 2 weeks later, still nothing. Both of us travel quite a bit, and I returned to China for holiday in Feb and forgot about the whole thing. (Mistake #2, lesson learnt—always be on top of your affairs related to a purchase since there’s usually a revocation period which can be used to protect your rights. Keep all your receipts, including that of your toilet paper) Till much later when I saw on my bank statement that I’d already been billed twice, in Feb and Mar, by Blau.
I put this forth to my friend again, whom promptly called Blau’s customer service (is not toll- free, 42 Euro cents per minute once connected) again, when they challenged his identity and why I was not contacting them myself. He explained my situation and inability to communicate in German, upon which was given the reply of ‘ask him to write us an email to explain’.
I logged on their website and could not find any email address for customer service. It was either live chat, callback or toll-not-free customer service options available on its page. I tried live chat and callback, but in order to initiate these options the user is required to log in with the phone number and password registered with the sim, which, needless to say, led to another dead end.
Though frustrated by the experience, I did not put too much thought into it and went on about my busy life as a student, convinced they’d reach me by email or phone with a satisfactory answer in the end. ( Mistake #3. Lesson learnt—once the transaction is done, the vendors do not usually reach out to a customer unless it’s for the purpose of selling them more stuff or a callback of a faulty product. Nobody cares here.)
One month, two month, still nothing, meanwhile the deduction of 9.99 from my bank account took place like clockwork.
In May, I decided to put a stop to this blatant disrespect, to say the least, of customers. I asked a German friend to sit by my side and translate for me while I finally dialed their German customer service line. It took 4 trials and just about 20 minutes waiting on the line before we were connected. I told the woman on the line that I’d never received their allegedly dispatched sim cards, and that I demand a full refund of the money they’d taken from my bank since January. She immediately told me that they’d not refund because I have a contract, and IT’S MY FAULT not having contacted them. I explained my situation and my previous efforts in reaching them through my German friend, to which she just replied ‘THIS IS GERMANY and naturally all things are in GERMAN. At this point my blood was boiling, I told her to find me a satisfactory solution or I’d tell my bank to block their access to my account. To which, she robotically repeated that I have a contract with them….In the end, she told me the best she could do is send the sim card again, but there’s no compensation whatsoever although I’ve never even used their service, to which I acquiesced, numbly. I asked her to send it to my current address instead of my friend’s since he’s now away in China for an extended stay. Again, of course, she shot it down with a ‘not possible’. (Mistake #4, use your own address registered with your residency permit for online purchase or receiving any kind of delivery or else risk being at fault of a potential loss. Because it’s Germany and everything has to be exact.)
To prevent further loss, upon hang-up I immediately called my bank to order a block against Telefonica, something I ‘d never done in my life before. Cross my heart. (Mistake #5, immediate blockage of access to your fund won’t solve anything when contractually bound. They will chase you down with more clouts till you finally succumb and crumble)
An ugly picture began to take shape in front of my eyes. I finally saw it clearly : I’d been dealing with a textbook hooligan company behind which stands a profit-starved telecom group which, for the purpose of squeezing every possible cent out of the market in answer to its shareholders’ insatiable demands, would go to extreme lengths to materialize such a post-purchase sector that is in existence on paper, but in essence discourages and prevents any kind of contact with a customer once the transaction is finalized and the paper signed. O2/Blau’s so-called customer care is nothing but a front, a hoax, a clever scheme that operates in the grey zone of the federal law.
That was one month ago. On June 28, I received another non-reply-able email invoice from Blau. The difference from the other 5 monthly consecutive billing invoice they’d sent me prior, is a short sentence run at the bottom that says, and Google Translator interpreted as: there’s been a block on your bank account, please wire 19.98euros to the XXX bank account asap. 19.98, doubled up now? Assuming that’s my penalty for default? For protecting my rather limited financial resources against the filthy claws of a bullying, blood-thirsting corporate wolf? Naturally, there’s no way to find out. Naturally, one’s expected to pay up without questioning. Naturally, this is the consumer culture here. Natürlich.
At this writing I have yet to receive a sim card from Blau, nor any phone calls from them regarding my troubles or the blocked access to my account. Only those emails. Those cold, templated emails one after another, making for a perfect one-way communication.
To be fair, It is possible that the sim card they’d sent on the third request has arrived at some point in the past month or so, and is now sitting in my friend’s mailbox. But there’s no way of knowing it since he won’t be back till Nov.
I’m stuck. I honestly do not know what to do with this situation. I fully acknowledge my lack of due diligence in the first place that has brought on this nightmare, for which I’ve been bitterly regretting the past month. The digital signature is mine, no doubt, and I shoulder responsibilities in this matter, but not in full.
I’ve consulted with people who studied law, one told me so long has I do not have the sim, I do not need to worry since they have not held up their end of the deal in the first place, and no fault would be found in me in the case of a civil lawsuit. In another country it would have been reassuring enough, but I’ve lived in Germany long enough to know that the German law tend to lean towards the corporates instead of the customers.
I’ve posted my experience on a few forums, and the only way out it seems, as suggested by most, are either pay up or lawyer up, the latter option would cost way much more than the first. Again, naturally, the best option is just to cough up the money plus the penalty for my ‘misbehavior’ of wanting to protect my limited financial resources. Aha, here we go! Falling right back into their scheme! Companies like O2 know this very well and count on your financial impotence to take on them to plunder you, to humiliate you, to chastise you and break you, till you’ve become one of them.
Indeed, another jaded, callous zombie roaming in our modern day society, bent on profiting anyone and anything at any cost.
Rest in peace, humanity. Auf Wiedersehen, the age of innocence.