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When You Want to Sue--But Can't

Stung by lawsuits, more service providers insist on arbitration

Traveling salesman Matt Moraca lives on his cell phone. So last year, when Alltel Corp. (AT ) offered him wireless service for much less than he had been paying, the St. Petersburg liquor wholesaler jumped at the deal. But within months, Alltel had jacked up his $49-a-month bill by $10. When Moraca threatened to sue, Alltel pointed to the fine print in his contract. It required him to settle all disputes by arbitration. Outraged, he sued anyway; his suit is pending. "What's to stop them from raising my rates $10 every month?" he says.

Moraca is in good company. While the securities industry has long obliged its clients to use arbitration, the practice is spreading rapidly. From AT&T (T ) and credit-card giant MBNA Corp. (KRB ) to mortgage lenders such as Country Wide Home Loans, more and more consumer companies and employers are turning to arbitration to avoid costly litigation. Essentially, they have decided to take tort reform into their own hands by forcing customers or workers to sign away their rights to go to court.