Hawaii AT&T workers say company urged them to use unethical tactics — and then fired them

 Hawaii News Now)Abraham Buonya says he was fired from AT&T for simply following his manager's orders. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Several current and former AT&T employees in Hawaii are condemning the company, accusing it of pushing workers to use unethical sales tactics — and then firing them when they did. 

The employees say retail managers took an aggressive approach when it came to selling trial subscriptions to its streaming service, Direct TV Now.

“The managers basically encouraged us and informed us of how to manipulate sales,” said Abraham Buonya, who was fired in early June from the AT&T store at the Ala Moana Center for violating the company's code of business conduct and falsifying records.

He is among at least six people fired in Hawaii as a result of an internal investigation by AT&T, which examined sales of Direct TV Now.

“Last fall, we detected some simultaneous customer orders and cancellations of a free product trial,” AT&T told Hawaii News Now, in a statement. “We determined some employees had violated our policies and based on our findings we took appropriate action.”

AT&T says both management and non-management employees were involved in that action.

The company, however, declined to comment on the allegations of unethical behavior and would not say how many people were terminated locally or nationally as part of the investigation. 

Buonya, who was AT&T’s top salesman in the state for two years, says the problems all stemmed from an effort to entice people to try Direct TV. To do so, representatives would offer to cancel a trial before it turned into a subscription.

This violates company policy, but was allegedly encouraged.

“We were told by managers to cancel it to avoid any future headaches but a lot slips through the cracks,” he said.

Sources say some representatives forget to follow up on that cancellation promise, which meant customers would be charged for months of Direct TV Now service. The subscription for the TV streaming service costs $35 a month.

One employee said he's seen some customers not catch the charges for up to seven months.

"We reversed any unauthorized activity in the very few cases where customers incurred charges," AT&T said in statement.

But sources say this isn’t the only reason AT&T customers might see mysterious charges.

All Direct TV Now trials require a credit card and an email address.

So if a customer agreed to purchase a trial, representatives were able to use that credit card to start several trials as long as they totaled no more than $35. This often happened during $10 promotional periods because representatives could squeeze three sales into one.

“My manager picked up my iPad, which was signed in under me, made a fake email and then activated a Direct TV Now subscription on that email and then said if I can do it, here you go, you can do the next one,” a fired AT&T employee said, preferring to remain anonymous.

Customers complained about the mysterious charges, Buonya said, adding they were hard to track down.

“These customers are seeing charges on their statements that they have no clue what it is, but managers are forcing us to do it because they need to meet their quotas,” he said.

Trying out the streaming service may sound like a choice, but for some AT&T customers it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

For example, sources said, if a customer were purchasing a cell phone, a sales representative might falsely say the purchase carries a fee. The representative would then offer to waive the fake fee if the customer instead purchased a cheaper trial of Direct TV Now.

Sources say this tactic was also encouraged by managers.

So why was the sale of Direct TV Now so important to managers?

AT&T retail stores often compete for status, vying to outsell one another and top regional sales charts. Cell phones do not pull a large profit for AT&T stores, so TV is an important metric in those rankings, employees said.

The current AT&T employee who asked not to be identified says that once the service officially became a ranked sales metric in June 2017, sales tripled. The numbers stayed that way through the end of the year.

Hawaii regularly had some of the best Direct TV Now sales numbers in the nation during this time. The Ala Moana and Kapiolani Boulevard locations had some of the best sales numbers in the state.

The current employee estimates that 90 percent of those sales throughout this time were made unethically.

Buonya, who was fired earlier this month, added that the goals set for stores "would be reached," no matter how unattainable.

"They just keep pressuring us to do it,” Buonya said.

Sources also say employees who didn't meet goals faced disciplinary action.

Early in 2018, seven representatives at the Ala Moana store were warned that a representative from “asset protection” would be interviewing them, Buonya said. “That’s when we knew something was going to come about with these fraudulent transactions,” he said.

Buonya says he is among five people at his store who were fired. Multiple sources say a number of sales representatives were fired at other Hawaii stores, though that could not be independently confirmed.

In the meantime, current and former AT&T employees are recommending consumers be aware of what they are being charged for.

"Check your statements, I have no doubt that there are still people that are being charged," the current employee said.

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