GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — In her twenty years with U.S. Army legal teams, German attorney Mechthild Benkert says the most frequent issue troubling her DoD clients has not changed. It’s German phone contracts, she says without hesitation.
“I think people automatically assume things are the same in Germany as in the United States” said Benkert, a German law specialist for the 7th Army Training Command. “That’s the most common mistake, especially in regards to German phone contracts.”
In fact, tick the clock back twenty years to July 1996, and Benkert’s first case for the U.S. Army dealt with disputes between a Soldier and German telecommunications company Telekom.
But what, exactly, is it about German phone contracts that mystifies Americans?
A few things …
What you need to know about German phone contracts:
All German contracts have an automatic renewal clause.
“It might be surprising to American ears, but this is considered good customer service in Germany. The customer doesn’t have to do anything because the contract automatically renews when, in the United States, it would normally expire. A customer may sign a 12- or 24-month contract, but in reality, they actually signed a never-ending contract. It always rolls over, unless you take steps to actively terminate it. The common person in Germany does not know much about German law, but this renewal clause is so commonly-known, it’s just obvious here.”
Contract termination must be in writing.
“If you PCS or want to change providers, you must submit a termination notice to the company. And it has to be in writing. Strictly speaking, an email is not considered ‘in writing’ under German law. Some offices allow emails for termination, but you need to be careful and make sure they will accept it. Termination must be in writing and then faxed or sent through registered mail with a return receipt requested.”
Early termination requires substantive cause.
“If you move to a location where the services are not provided — as with PCS moves or long-term deployments — you can terminate the contract 90 days after providing notice. Which means you still have to pay for three more months. The shortest wait period is 90 days, and that’s considered fast under German law. Also, you need to submit proof that the cause for early termination exists, and this is why you need orders or a memorandum from the unit.”
A signed memorandum from the commander can be used in place of military orders.
“What we have seen work — and some Soldiers don’t know this — is that a memorandum from the commander or the first sergeant confirming that a Soldier will actually leave Germany can be submitted to companies instead of orders. This is good if you know you’re leaving Germany, but won’t get orders three months out.”
Customers are responsible for proving the termination notice is received.
“The burden of proof that the termination was received by the company is on the customer. If the termination does not reach the company, it’s considered the customer’s fault. That’s why it’s so important to request a return receipt for your termination notices.”
Most companies expect bill payments within 10 days of issuance.
“These days, a lot of bills are sent via email. No matter where my client is, most — even if their deployed — have access to emails and know when the bill is in. But clients who have bills come to their CMR address instead, receive bills so late, that by the time they receive it, the 10 days are already up and they have to pay it immediately.”
Unpaid German bills will follow you into the U.S.
“You will get one of those very charming phone calls from a collection agency saying, ‘Hello we’re calling to collect a debt.’”
6 tips to prevent problems with your contract:
1. Provide an email address you regularly check to receive bills immediately.
2. Use a street address instead of an APO box, if you’d rather receive bills by mail.
“The German mail system is very fast. I get my bill to a civilian address within a day. If you want to receive bills through the mail, use your street address, because the CMR address will take longer.”
3. Transfer money to companies directly at the banks on post.
“A bill in Germany will always have the payment and bank account information, the routing number or IBAN, the number of the bill and the customer number. Instead of going to the phone shop — which may not accept payments or process them too slowly — take this bill to a bank on post and transfer money directly to company. You don’t even have to have an account with them. The people at the banks here are very helpful. They do these transactions all the time.”
4. Consider online banking or using automatic withdrawal to pay automatically.
“Automatic withdrawals are standard practice in Germany. You just open an account with Community Bank or Service Credit Union, keep enough money in the account money and have it automatically transfer to cover your bills. A lot of Soldiers do that. It’s really helpful to use a bank that regularly does business with banks on the economy.
If people are hesitant — and this is totally understandable — to give anyone access to their account information and prefer to do the transfer themselves, they need to remember to make payments on time, even when they are on vacation or deployed. They will need to find the nearest franchise or bank to make the transfer.”
5. Always ask for a receipt and save all your records.
“If you don’t have a record and you don’t do payments through a bank account or cannot retrieve bank statements, then you have no evidence that the payment was ever made and may end up paying twice. It’s so important: Keep your receipts and documents.
Also, check to see how far back your bank statements go. Some companies only go back 12 months, which means you have to save bank statements after bill payments in a folder on your computer.”
6. Contact the Legal Assistance Office for help.
“Soldiers and families can always call the Legal Assistance Office or email us through our webpage to make an appointment, especially if they think there is something majorly wrong with their contract. They should come in as soon as they think something is off.”
For more, contact the 7th Army Training Command Legal Assistance Office on Tower Barracks at DSN 475-7114, CIV 09641-83-7114; Rose Barracks at DSN 476-2289, CIV 09662-83-2289; or Hohenfels at DSN 520-5565, CIV 09472-83-5565. To schedule an appointment, visit their webpage and select Request Appointment.