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Phone fiasco reveals who's watching out for Floridians

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published June 6, 2004

This spring, more than 1-million people around the United States, including more than 100,000 people in Florida, were mistakenly billed by AT&T for long-distance telephone service.

Some people who got these bills truly were AT&T customers. They were wrongly billed for extra charges.

But most victims of the mistake weren't AT&T customers at all. The bum charges were included in the regular phone bill they got in the mail from their local company such as Verizon or BellSouth.

Lots of people simply paid up.

Others noticed the mistake and tried to get their bills corrected by calling AT&T, with varying degrees of success.

Some of those who called had to listen to AT&T sales pitches. Some were even told they wouldn't get their money unless they bought AT&T services.

How much are we talking about, in total? Not clear. The main mistake seemed to concern a $3.95 monthly charge, but by the time other fees, taxes and surcharges were tacked on, it was several dollars more.

It was potentially millions, though.

Heck, at my house, we got billed twice. The first month that I called to complain, AT&T told me there was a computer "glitch" and took the charge off. The next month, they charged me double and informed me I was their customer. This was news to me, since I had been paying another long-distance carrier for some time.

I would think . . .

I would think that when a mistake of this scale occurred, lots of important people in Florida would sit up and yell.

Just for starters, I would expect the Florida Public Service Commission to jump out of the telephone industry's lap and actually do something besides posting a mild notice on its Web site.

You know what woulda been great? A news conference with all five PSC members vowing to get to the bottom of such a massive screw-up. (Of course, they would have had to take a break from jacking up phone rates and getting back-door briefings from the companies they regulate.)

It would have been nice to see the Florida Legislature rush into session and ram through a bill taking over the AT&T case, the way it took over the Schiavo case. No, wait. The last time the Legislature did anything, it doubled everybody's phone bill. Yikes.

I further would expect a major-league reaction from my local phone company, whether Verizon or BellSouth, along the lines of:

"Holy cow! Thousands of our customers are getting wrongly billed, and our own billing system is being used to do it! This is an outrage! We'll do everything we can to help, instead of just brushing off callers!"

There's also an outfit called the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but it didn't exactly lead the charge, either. (Right now, a couple of hundred state employees are saying, "Not my department.")

Heck, I would think that a mistake of this scope, involving millions of dollars and tens of thousands of Floridians, might even get the governor interested.

Lastly, I would expect somebody, somewhere, to make AT&T pay a fine. Even though the mistake was innocent, the company cost a lot of people a lot of time and worry.

None of this stuff happened, of course.

The only person who did anything was state Attorney General Charlie Crist. He took AT&T to court and procured a consent agreement that was signed May 20. Everybody gets their money back. Automatically.

(Cynical friends ask, "When are you going to quit being so nice to Charlie Crist?" The answer is: When he stops being the only guy siding with the people of Florida.)

Betsy Palmer, an AT&T spokeswoman in Atlanta, told me that everybody in the company from the top down has agonized over this episode and the damage it has done. The company would have made sure everybody got their money back regardless, she said.

"We feel terrible about it," Palmer said. And I believe her. Deep down, I still feel an irrational affection for the old company Mr. Bell founded. That does not mean I do not want a pack of watchdogs yapping at it constantly.

The real value of this episode is to show who is looking out for Floridians, and who is not.

[Last modified June 5, 2004, 23:51:22]


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