Bell Atlantic Corp. to Police Crammers Starting This Weekend

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Putting on its most customer-friendly face, Bell Atlantic Corp. will take a stand against the billing of unauthorized service charges when it simplifies the process of removing them starting on Saturday. 

The N.Y.-based telecommunications firm has targeted July 4 for the third prong in its attack on "cramming" -- the practice of listing unrequested charges on a customer's phone bill. 

Instead of referring the customer to the service provider that made the charge, Bell Atlantic will begin removing questionable charges when the customer complains. Bell Atlantic will then take on the task of dealing with the service provider itself. 

"Our customers should not have to jump through hoops to resolve a cramming dispute," said James G. Cullen, president and chief executive officer of Bell Atlantic's Telecom Group. 

According to industry experts, cramming has mushroomed into a huge problem for consumers in the past six months. It came to the notice of the Maryland Public Service Commission in March, prompting an investigation into the practice. The commission scheduled a hearing for Aug. 10 to decide policy on the matter. 

John Sayles represents the Maryland Office of People's Counsel as the lead attorney concerning residential telephone rates. While some cases of cramming result from negligence, Sayles recognizes the ways service providers intentionally sneak charges on phone bills. 

Something as simple as filling out a sweepstakes entry can saddle a consumer with a $50 charge on their phone bill if they fail to read the fine print on a form, he said. 

"In one case, the small print is an agreement to buy a voice mail account," Sayles said. "This appears later on their monthly Bell Atlantic phone bill categorized as a miscellaneous charge." 

In the month of April, Bell Atlantic registered 233 complaints of cramming in one of its five central offices in Maryland, Sayles said. 

But many complaints remain unregistered from the consumers' inability to recognize incidents of cramming, others contend. 

"Cramming on any individual bill may amount to cents or dollars," said Judith Oppenheimer, president of New York City telecom- consulting firm ICB. "Most people don't notice a dollar or two coming out of their pocket." 

For the service providers, however, the mass amounts of dollars and cents add up. "Carriers that do this get away with a bulk amount," Oppenheimer said. "This is a nice little revenue stream." 

Oppenheimer said cramming has become more prevalent since deregulation, with Bell Atlantic billing on behalf of other telecommunications service providers. This allows customers to shop around for different phone services but still receive one bill. 

Facing complaints of cramming from its own customers, Bell Atlantic chose to take a public stance against it in May. The company announced three measures to help minimize the effects of cramming on customers. 

Bell Atlantic has notified seven companies it will no longer bill on their behalf because of cramming complaints. It also stopped billing on any new services above it's original agreement with a company. 

Under the new one-stop policy, Bell Atlantic hopes to ease the victim's process of erasing unauthorized charges. "There are a number of companies out there providing legitimate telecommunications services, but there are also a number of bad actors," said Bell Atlantic spokesman Harry Mitchell. "This is in response to the complaints our customers have had." 

Credit: Daily Record Business Writer 

Copyright The Daily Record Co. Jul 2, 1998