Karl Goetz looked at his Prada-branded cellphone Friday morning and saw a message he had never seen before.
It was another way of saying his high-end phone was suddenly as useful for making calls as a pair of Prada pumps.
But fashion was not to blame. The problem was with the premium cellphone service Voce, which mysteriously shut down Friday.
The abrupt end of service from Beverly Hills-based Voce, which had advertised from billboards in tony shopping districts and had sales booths in Neiman Marcus stores, left subscribers scrambling for alternative service and frustrated that they couldn't reach anyone at the company.
"I called the customer service number at Voce and it just rang and rang," said Goetz, who owns a digital design firm in Long Beach.
Subscribers posted frantic notes on online forums, sharing information and tips on porting numbers over to other cell companies.
And many discovered they had something else in common -- in the last couple of weeks, they said, the company had attempted to bill their bank accounts double the rate for a month's service.
When Voce debuted in 2006, subscribers paid a $500 sign-up fee and $200 a month for unlimited minutes. Also included: a new high-end phone every year and unlimited use of the concierge service.
Last year, in an attempt to attract more customers, the sign-up fee was eliminated and the monthly fee set at $118 for 2,000 talk minutes and 5 megabytes of data. Subscribers were charged extra for new phones.
Voce had been having financial woes of late, said Roy Kosuge, who until recently was the chief operating officer.
The ownership of Voce's parent, Faith Communications Inc., was transferred in a cashless transaction last month to investment firm SunCal Midwest, also known as SunCal Funds, based in Chicago, Kosuge said. (A spokesman for real estate developer SunCal Cos. in Irvine said it is not related to the Chicago company.) He said employees haven't been paid since the transfer.
Kosuge said he found out he had been fired when his company phone was disconnected. "They said to take a Friday off," he said. "Then I noticed my access to [company] e-mail had disappeared."
E-mail requests for interviews with SunCal Funds weren't answered.
The cellphone number for the head of SunCal Funds, Brian Richards, has been disconnected. It was a Voce line.
Voce, which didn't have its own wireless frequencies or infrastructure, obtained wholesale cell minutes from standard carriers and then packaged them for its subscribers. This type of operation is known in the industry as a mobile virtual network operator.
Several such operations have gone under. Last year the youth-oriented Amp'd Mobile closed down. ESPN- and Disney-branded services also died. Major ones still standing are Virgin Mobile, one of the pioneers in the field, and the more recent Helio.
Steve Sanford, Voce's first chief executive, said the economics were difficult because of the small spread between the wholesale cost of minutes and what people expected to pay.
The trick was to find attractive, value-added features, which for Voce was the always available, live-person concierge service.
"It was a great, great service," said Maisha Hart, owner of a legal staffing agency in Inglewood. "When I was in New York and looking for a restaurant, I would call and they would find one for me.
"Once I called to find out if there was a Crocs shoe kiosk somewhere near me."
Goetz said he called the service four or five times a week. "I was in a tiny town once in Minnesota trying to find this restaurant where I was going to meet some relatives," he said. "I called them and they had me walk two blocks, turn right, and it was there.
"It was totally worth it."
Celia Alario, who does public relations and planning work for nonprofits, said she would hand over research projects to the service. "If I had eight things I had to get done, I could hand four of them over to them," said Alario, who lives in Moab, Utah.
"It was like having a personal assistant."
And not always for work. "I once bet a friend who won the World Series in 1978 and we weren't in a place with access to the information, so I called," Alario said.
She took the Dodgers. "I lost."