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Is phone company ripping off American troops?

TODAY investigates a US phone company alleged to be gouging thousands of American service members for calls made to loved ones while headed to and from Iran and Afghanistan.
/ Source: NBC News

Army Sgt. Richard Corder and his unit were headed to Iraq in May when their military charter made a refueling stop in Leipzig, Germany. It was Corder's third tour in Iraq. His unit had lost 28 soldiers during a previous deployment, so his family was especially worried.

"Both my kids, they were in tears. Wife was in tears when we left,” he said. “I just wanted them to know that everything was going to be fine, that I was going to come home.”

So Corder decided to make a quick call home, using a bank of pay phones inside the secure area at the Leipzig-Halle Airport where the troops hang out, and paying with his debit card. He didn’t reach his wife, so he left a 3-second message: “Hey honey it’s just me. I’m trying to call you. All right, love you. Bye.”

Then came the bill – for $41. Corder felt ripped off.

“It’s terrible that they would do that to us,” Corder said. “I mean we volunteer to serve our country. … We fight for their freedom. And they're going to scam us, take our money, rip us off?”

Now Corder and his wife, Dharma, are suing a U.S. company they allege is responsible for gouging thousands of troops for phone calls to loved ones while headed to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The company — BBG Communications — is headquartered in a gleaming glass office building in San Diego, with its own sculpture garden.

“Our service members have had millions of dollars taken out of their pockets to enrich the coffers of BBG,” said John Mattes, one of the Corders’ attorneys.

In the last four years, more than 800,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines have traveled through the refueling stop in Leipzig, heading to and from a war zone, according the U.S. Transportation Command.

It’s not clear how many used the phones, but blogs and emails complaining about the phones date to 2008, from privates to senior officers: "robbed by BBG"; "half our unit used this stupid phone"; "sick to my stomach thinking about how much money this company has taken from all those marines," read just a few.

Army Lt. Col. Kathy Urick told NBC News that she used one of the phones in December 2010 while headed to Afghanistan. She left a 20-second message for her husband and was shocked when the bill arrived. “I knew it would be expensive but I didn’t expect $40. That’s outrageous!” Urick said. “I thought of all the soldiers on a limited budget who’d used those phones.”

Army Sgt. Jeremy Burnes said he was stunned to be charged $176.25 for two calls of under 5 minutes each from Leipzig to tell his wife he was safely out of Iraq and what time he’d be arriving home. “There’s no sign or anything like that,” Burnes said. “It was a rip-off.”

The Better Business Bureau said it’s had 453 complaints about BBG in the last three years and gives the company an “F” rating.

"That somebody would be looking to make a buck on the fact that they’re coming and going from a war zone … I find that disgusting,” said Brenda Linnington, director of the BBB’s Military Line.

BBG's lawyer, who spoke on background, told NBC News that the San Diego company only handles billing and collections on these calls, and that the long distance services are actually provided by a sister company, BBG Global, located in Switzerland.

NBC News visited BBG Global's headquarters in Baar, Switzerland, on Friday and found only a small office in a multi-use building with a simple sign on the door. A producer knocked on the door during normal business hours, but no one was there. The building handyman said that he seldom sees anyone in that office.

After we contacted the company through the lawyer, BBG Global responded with this statement: “Any accusation, or inference, that American Military Personnel are being targeted with inflated rates is untrue and offensive.”

BBG Global said the Leipzig phones are operated by a German firm, which charges the same fee for international operator assisted credit card calls on all its pay phones in Germany. It also said that it complies with all applicable German laws and that customers can get the price of a call by pressing “3.”

Sgt. Corder said he doesn’t buy it.

“There’s no way anybody could sit here and convince me of that,” he said. “Maybe long distance calls are expensive, but they’re not that expensive. If I can talk to my wife or family from a combat zone for $25 for 10 hours, there’s no reason why they can’t do that in Europe.”

And if troops aren’t being targeted, he asked, why aren’t the phones programmed to accept the less expensive pre-paid calling cards that many soldiers carry, instead of virtually forcing service members to use credit or debit cards? And why, he said, aren't the rates prominently posted so service members are clearly warned of the cost?

NBC News asked the largest phone company in Germany, Deutsche Telekom, what it charges for similar operated-assisted calls to the States. An official told us that Corder's call would have cost about $10 — a fraction of the $41 he was charged.