Shady Operators In Long Distance?

One Saturday morning last January, someone called from AT&T to ask if I wanted to reinstate AT&T as my long-distance carrier. Funny thing was, I had never left AT&T in the first place.

Or so I thought. But when the bill from my local carrier, Nynex, arrived in my mailbox a few days later, it also contained a statement from Sonic Communications, a long-distance outfit in Roswell, Ga., that I had never heard of. Worse still were Sonic's rates: The company charged me $104.42, including taxes, for eight calls between Manhattan and Silver Spring, Md. Under my AT&T discount plan, those same calls would have cost $29.66.

I had been a victim of "telephone slamming"--having your long-distance service switched from one carrier to another without your knowledge or consent. "Slamming is becoming an increasingly common type of consumer fraud," says California Attorney General Daniel Lungren, whose office in February filed a complaint against Sonic, seeking $5 million in restitution for thousands of California victims, $1 million in civil penalties, and an injunction. Illinois, Georgia, and New York have also sued Sonic over the alleged scam.

GRAY TYPE. On Apr. 7, Sonic filed for Chapter 11 in federal bankruptcy court in Atlanta. Responding to the states' allegations, Charles Helein, an attorney for Sonic, says: "We are denying any intentional effort to mislead consumers into taking our service. We have followed a consistent policy that any consumer who has complained has been given a refund."

Sonic is not the only alleged culprit. The Federal Communications Commission has received more than 4,000 complaints of unauthorized switching since 1992. AT&T estimates tens of thousands of its customers are slammed every month, and it found that 7% of those surveyed who left AT&T between April and September of last year were slamming victims. In March, the FCC issued a $1.4 million "notice of apparent liability" against Oncor Communications, claiming that Oncor slammed numerous pay phones in New York. "Oncor admits the phones were switched but denies any intentional wrongdoing," says Gregory Casey, regulatory attorney for Oncor.

Under current FCC rules, a phone company must obtain a customer's authorization, typically in a so-called letter of agency, before a switch. But consumers may unknowingly approve such a change when they sign contest entries or prize forms. According to court papers, Sonic sent unsolicited $10 checks to thousands of consumers, including many with Hispanic surnames. By endorsing the checks, these people unwittingly gave their O.K. to a switch. On the back, in light-gray, nearly illegible type, was the authorization for Sonic to become their long-distance provider. But some consumers complained they were switched without receiving or signing checks. I never got one: A Sonic rep told me that an Olga Perez, whom I didn't know, had endorsed a check, presumably for my number.

To help thwart slamming, the FCC proposed new rules requiring that a document to O.K. a change may not be combined with a sweepstakes, check, or other come-on. And the authorization form must be written in "clear and unambiguous" language with print of "sufficient size."

Consumers who suspect they have been slammed should immediately call and write their local and long-distance phone companies and the fraudulent carrier and get switched back. You should also notify the FCC, your state attorney general, and consumer outfits such as Call For Action (202 537-0585).

STILL HAGGLING. Victims should ask their local phone company to waive any reconnect fees. The onus is on the slammer to prove a legitimate authorization was given. You may also refuse to pay the higher rates charged by the offending carrier, as I did. Tell your Baby Bell you are formally disputing the excess charges.

Still, the exercise can be frustrating. Although a Sonic rep said the company made a mistake and agreed to abide by AT&T's rates, I am still haggling with Nynex and Sonic over charges. And although my non-Sonic charges were paid, Nynex initially threatened to cut off my service.

To prevent slamming from happening at all, some local phone companies, including Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Nynex, and Pacific Bell, let you put a freeze on your long-distance service, meaning a change can occur only when you approve the switch yourself--not when the new company says so. Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, and Nynex accept a phone call to undo the freeze. Pacific Bell customers must write in. Having been a slamming victim, I think I'll keep my service on hold for a while.

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