State agencies caught in map deal

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Schools, government agencies and hospitals across Norway complain they’ve been lured into uncharted financial territory by a company selling them digital maps. They admit they’ve been paying large sums of taxpayers’ money for marketing services they didn’t need, didn’t realize they were agreeing to, and probably could have received for free on the Internet.

The company, which refers to itself as both Det Norske Kartselskapet og Det Norske Kartselskap on its own website, claims to have “thousands of satisfied customers,” with more than 90 percent of them renewing their contracts with the mapping company each year. Different stories are emerging in the Norwegian media, however, with key public institutions expressing their anxiety and regret over enormous bills received from the company for services they barely knew they were agreeing to.

Buried in bills
Margaret Eckbo, director of the City of Oslo’s cemeteries and burials agency (Gravferdsetaten), told newspaper Aftenposten that she believed she had agreed to a contract with Det Norske Kartselskapet for maps for the agency’s website that would cost NOK 7,000 (approx. USD 1,200). Instead the company sent them 50 bills over the course of just one year, and the agency ended up paying NOK 734,000 (USD 126,000) for something that proved to be unnecessary. She says that it has been an excessive cost for an agency that already had a tight budget.

The company claims it provides the most up-to-date digital maps for customers’ websites, “with the thought that users often have to navigate their way through road works, new buildings and so on.” The maps are integrated into customers’ websites, so that online users don’t have to click outside the website to find out how to get to there. The main content used in their maps, however, is reportedly also available for free on the website www.atlas.no.

Digging out of the deals
Oslo’s cemetery and burial agency is far from alone in being surprised by the bills sent by Det Norske Selskapet.  Aftenposten reported that Akershus University Hospital (Ahus) and Oslo University Hospital (Oslo Universitetssykehus) have together paid more than NOK 5 million (approx. USD 858,000) for digital mapping that they weren’t aware they’d allegedly ordered. The Ahus case is currently under investigation by auditors at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).

Several other entities from the Labour Party to the police and a state welfare agency have cancelled their contracts, according to Aftenposten. Oslo’s department of education has warned individual schools against entering into any agreements with the company, because digital maps are widely available at no cost on the Internet. Norway’s official mapping agency, Statens kartverk, claims it feels misused and has warned the company against what it considers misleading marketing.

‘Misunderstood’
Former politician Eckbo, along with many others, says she misunderstood what the original contract would entail. Her agency supplied just one address for a digital map, but was then billed for maps for all of the 19 graveyards in Oslo. She also found out late that they needed to give one year’s notice in order to cancel the contract, so felt compelled to pay for the full year.

Many of the company’s customers tell similar stories of aggressive sales tactics, unclear agreements and frequent billing that started at an agreed rate but then rose higher because of large alleged investments and enhancements made to the map products. Aftenposten also reported threats of debt collection and references to “contracts” made with former employees. Customers often ended up paying big bills because they either didn’t know how to get out of the contract, or because it would simply be too costly and time-consuming to enter into a legal battle with the company.

Map seller’s defense
Lasse Krogh Lysø, manager at Det Norske Kartselskapet, vigorously defended both his company’s practices and its products. He told Aftenposten that Eckbo ordered digital mapping solutions with them for several different entries, and received an order confirmation for each product. He claimed to have written documentation that Eckbo approved all of the orders.

Lysø also claims that their single-page contracts are not hard to understand. He acknowledges, however, that with thousands of customers, some may have grounds for complaint, and that in those cases they usually enter into dialogue with customers, and often end up apologizing and withdrawing claims for payment.

Law Professor Geir Woxholt at the University of Oslo (UiO) warned that when contracts are partially open to interpretation, a customer’s legal options can become complicated. He also stressed that any protests must be lodged quite quickly, not six months or a year later. Woxholt also told Aftenposten that when sales are directed at companies and agencies, the state’s consumer protection laws including the right to cancel consumer purchase agreements do not apply.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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