Diane Graff of Keller was perplexed.She hasn’t had a cellphone contract with Hawk Electronics in years. So when they sent her a bill for $25.64 for undercharged state taxes, some dating back seven years, she had some questions about it. But no one was answering the phones at the Fort Worth-based telephone and wireless service provider. Once a big name in the region, it handled contracts with the city governments of Fort Worth, Tyler, Lufkin and Palestine, the U.S. Marshal’s Office, the Fort Worth Fire Department and police departments in River Oaks and Weatherford.On Sept. 27, about the time Graff received her bill dated Sept. 24, Hawk’s parent corporation, Teletouch, laid off all of its workers, locked the doors on its last remaining store and didn’t bother to engage a call center or collection agency to field consumer questions even though the move had been planned for months. But it still collected payments over the phone or online when people handed over credit card information.“When you try their 800 number, you can’t get a real person no matter what you do,” Graff complained. “I suspect that whoever is sending out these bills think people are stupid enough to respond.”Graff, like others, was offered a 20 percent discount if she paid by Oct. 10. But she will ignore the bill, which carries her name and that of her late ex-husband, she told the Star-Telegram.Joe Hudson, 61, an Arlington retiree, said he experienced the same frustration trying to contact a customer service representative for some answers. Giving up, he decided to pay the $30 bill for what Hawk said were undercharged taxes between 2006 and 2009, explaining that he didn’t want to leave the matter hanging. Still, he wondered, “I never heard of people trying to collect back taxes. Can they legally do that?”The Better Business Bureau says it has received several complaints about the Hawk bills, and has referred callers to the Texas comptroller’s office, which in turn passed the buck.“The state has assessed unpaid sales tax due against the seller [Hawk Electronics], not the customer,” R.J. DeSilva, a spokesperson at the comptroller’s office, emailed us. “Whether the customers who are receiving bills have to pay those bills is a private matter between the customer and the seller and would need to be worked out between them.” On Oct. 3, Teletouch filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in Delaware, said its interim CEO, Robert Carringer, a turnaround specialist with Deloitte CRG, who subsequently handed over what was left to a court-appointed trustee, Charles A. Stanziale, a Newark, N.J., attorney.Contacted last week, Stanziale insisted that Teletouch had the right to collect back taxes, just as the comptroller’s office did when it demanded, and received, more than $1.88 million for the undercharging. That ate into a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2011 of a drawn-out legal battle with AT&T over the right to resell services of the communications giant. While Teletouch described it at the time as a victory, unpublicized terms required Teletouch to hand over its customer list to AT&T when it stopped offering those services in 2017. Teletouch had expected to use at least some of the settlement cash to diversify into new businesses.Speaking from Newark, Stanziale said that a customer service number — 1-800-226-4295 — would have agents able to field questions today. But as of 3:00 CST, a recorded voice said no one is available to handle queries. Gene Sloan of Euless says he and his wife, Renu, won’t be using the number even if it works. They received a $14 bill for three cellphones, including one with an out-of-town area code. “My wife said, ‘I just don’t know why they have to go back eight years for these small charges.’”The couple were miffed that the bill stated at the top: “State Sales Tax Notice,” making it sound like it came from the comptroller’s office.“We decided it looked a little bogus,” Sloan said. “We’re not going to pay, and we don’t think that will blemish our credit, which is perfect.”Despite the confusion, the BBB still gives Hawk an A+ rating for having resolved past disputes.
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718 Twitter: @bshlachter