Minnesota customers of Sprint Nextel Corp. who think their cell phone contracts were extended without their say-so can file for refunds of early termination fees under a legal settlement announced Monday.
State Attorney General Lori Swanson said her office will accept claims through March 15. Swanson spokesman Ben Wogsland said about 400,000 Minnesota customers who signed contracts with Sprint Nextel since Sept. 26, 2001 are potentially eligible.
The agreement ends a two-year-old consumer protection lawsuit that started with Swanson seeking restitution and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per incident. She settled for an agreement with the cell phone giant to review claims of improper cancellation penalties and reverse or refunds some of the fees.
Sprint spokesman Matt Sullivan declined to estimate how many customers might get refunds.
"If there's no indication that the customer consented and the contract was extended, then a refund will be provided," Sullivan said. "If there's evidence in the history that the customer did provide consent, then the early termination fee will stand."
Sullivan said Sprint Nextel settled the lawsuit without admitting any wrongdoing. He said the Overland Park, Kan.-based company has always disclosed its fees.
Wogsland said a third-party reviewer will resolve disputes over claims Sprint turns down.
Swanson sued Sprint Nextel in September 2007, alleging that the company made a practice of extending customers' contracts without their informed consent when they made small changes, such as adjusting minutes or adding a family member. She said Sprint charged fees of as much as $200 per line if the consumer later canceled an extended contract they thought had already expired.
Swanson's office said at least 439,000 Minnesota residents were asked to pay cancellation penalties between July 1999 and December 2008. She said another 450,000 Minnesotans get their wireless phone service from Sprint under contracts with early termination fees, making them eligible to file claims if their contracts were extended without their permission.
One of the former Sprint customers hoping for a refund is Kate Zittlow Rogness, 34, of Minneapolis. She and her husband were charged $400 to cancel their Sprint contract for two phone lines in 2007 after they thought they had passed the penalty period. She said Sprint told her she had extended her contract when she called months earlier to get a 5 percent discount.
"I never agreed to that, nor was informed about it," she said.
Zittlow Rogness said they paid the penalty to leave Sprint and don't plan to go back.