January 25, 2014 • By Dennis Beaver
Have you purchased a pair of walkie-talkies which claimed in bold, large print on the package a range of anywhere from 6 to 50 miles, taken them home, charged the batteries and then discovered that these radios barely let you talk a couple of blocks from your house?
Did you think, “What am I doing wrong? What’s going on here?”
That was precisely what Kingsburg reader “Sammy” thought. His experience illustrates why, in our legal opinion and the opinion of telecommunications experts from England and the U.S. who we have interviewed, a massive — and hugely profitable — fraud is being waged, industrywide, by manufacturers of consumer two-way radios.
We believe that action by both state and the Federal Trade Commission is needed against not only manufacturers, but retailers who have become co-conspirators, fully aware of exaggerated range claims which customers will likely never realize, but which sell.
Technically accurate statements can still be misleading
Before Sammy’s story — and our findings — let’s answer this question: “What makes an advertisement ‘deceptive?’” According to the Federal Trade Commission:
• It is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances.
• It is material — important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product.
A statement can be technically correct, yet still misleading, when it implies far more about a product’s performance than the typical user would realistically see, leaving a false impression which leads to a buying decision.
The makers of consumer walkie-talkies were handed an advertising pot of gold in June 2000 which proved that under the right — but extraordinarily rare conditions — it is possible for these low-powered radios to communicate very long distances.
At an elevation of 8,000 feet on Oregon’s Mt. Hood, a seriously injured climber said a prayer, pushed transmit on his half-watt Family Radio Service walkie-talkie — used to communicate with other climbers — and asked anyone who heard the call to please summon help.
Seventy miles away in the town of McMinnville, two brothers, 5 and 7 — who received a pair of these little radios as a Christmas present — heard the distress call, told their dad and lives were saved.
“This was the perfect example of the advertising claims made by these manufacturers as both consumer and commercial two-way radios are line of sight. If there is a clear path — no obstructions, cars, buildings, foliage, houses, nothing in between the radios — and you have a significant difference in elevation — they can communicate over great distances.
“But how often will you be at 8,000 feet speaking to someone who just happens to be tuned to the same frequency and is 70 miles away?”
That question was asked by now-retired AT&T Supervisor of Network Operations for Central California, John Strand, of Lake Isabella. Strand’s work specialties included VHF and UHF two-way radio systems. He has been an amateur radio operator since 1962.
“Once, over flat desert, we got 6 miles with 5-watt professional radios, using proper antennas. Today’s small, handheld consumer radios typically use the rubber duck variety, which frequently are not the preferred length. In all my years in communications, I have never come remotely close to even 10 miles, over any terrain, even with professional 5-watt radios, unless repeaters were used,” he tells You and the Law.
“The problem with the way these radios are being sold,” Strand feels. “Is the exception — distances that most buyers will never come anywhere close to — that manufacturers present as what you can expect.
“But if they made no claim, or told you that a few hundred feet is all that you will see under many if not most conditions, how many radios would they sell?
“Sure, the package might say ‘25 miles under optimal conditions,’ and possibly illustrate shortened range with typical usage, but I believe that most buyers will only think of the big, not the small number.”
Lunch at Costco, dessert at Sam’s Club
Our Kingsburg reader, Sammy — who enjoys meeting his friends and the free food samples at Sam’s Club and Costco — purchased a pair of 35-mile range radios he found at both stores, only to discover “less than half a mile on the high power setting! And we were standing on the same, level, residential street! I felt so ripped off that I took them back!” he told us, asking, “How can they make such outrageous claims?”
He’s not alone in asking that question.
We purchased the same radios, used them identically and also got about half a mile.
Only one manufacturer would speak with us, but when asked, “Why, with your 5-watt commercial radios using correct length antennas do you not make range claims?” at first there was silence.
And then, static.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.