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News Analysis

Fortnightly Magazine - October 1 1998

the products are appropriate and telecommunications-related. (The carrier does not allow pornographic and psychic lines.) In spite of this aggressive action, some services still slip through. Last year, U S WEST stopped billing for two services after customer complaints indicated possible cramming. As of April of this year, Cindy Humphrey, director of billing services for U S WEST, said that the company had canceled billing for 14 services. When asked whether it reported that action to the FTC or the FCC, a representative told the Fortnightly, "No. We're not a cop or a regulator. We're not interested in determining intent [or] who's at fault. Our job is to protect our customers."

GTE Network Services' Wholesale Markets announced in May that it was "severing" billing relations with three companies whose complaint levels were unacceptable and was initiating financial penalties against 11 additional companies. In addition, after Jan. 1, 1999, GTE will no longer allow non-telecommunications or information-related charges to be added to bills, and will also begin requiring independent third-party verification of any new service other than long-distance services that goes on a GTE local bill.

Bell Atlantic has served formal notice on at least seven billing aggregators that it will no longer bill for their services unless they cure problems caused by at least 35 telecommunications providers who are generating cramming complaints from customers. In May, Bell Atlantic declared a moratorium on the billing of any new services not previously approved until it can be assured that cramming is under control. In July, the LEC announced that "in several months" its customers will be able to limit whose charges are carried on their local telephone bill.

LECs aren't the only ones taking action against crammers. Neel reminded the subcommittee that many state utility commissions have rules that don't allow cutting off service during billing disputes, so if a charge seems suspicious, consumers need to realize that they won't be penalized if they don't pay for it. In Texas, as of May 31, customers had received refunds for cramming charges totaling $8,991.

Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar signed legislation on July 1 giving consumers additional protection against cramming and slamming. The law bans sweepstakes boxes of the type identified above for marketing long-distance and enhanced phone services. It also requires notification of new services to consumers in writing, giving the customer the opportunity to cancel, or independent, third-party verification of the consumers

consent via telephone.

Lori M. Rodgers is a contributing editor to Public Utilities Fortnightly.

Industry Self-Policing

Voluntary "Best Practices" for Local Telcos*

Make bills comprehensible and complete. Include information the consumer may need to understand or dispute charges.

Give options to consumers to control whether third-party's products and services are charged on their phone bills.

Verify any consumer authorization of services.

Screen products, services and service providers prior to approval for inclusion on the telephone bill.

Require clearinghouses to ensure that consumers are billed only for charges they authorize.

Educate consumers on their rights and the process of dispute resolution.

Assist law enforcement, regulators and other local exchange carriers.

* Source: National