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FCC rings alarm over phone service switching Unauthorized switching of long-distance carriers linked to overzealous marketing.


ATLANTA -- Lisa Hoffman did not ask for her long-distance telephone service to be switched from Sprint to MCI Communications.

So why was there a $1.49 charge on her bill for switching to MCI?

"I called Southern Bell to report the billing error and was horrified to find my service had actually been changed," says Ms. Hoffman, 32, of Atlanta.

Southern Bell then asked MCI to provide written authorization for the switch. The authorization was sent -- but it was not signed by Ms. Hoffman. Instead, an Atlanta man with a similar number had authorized MCI to change his service, and his number had been recorded incorrectly.

Mistakes like that are responsible for some of the unauthorized switching incidents. Others are tricks played by pranksters.

But many involve questionable sales tactics by telemarketers trying to persuade customers to switch from one long-distance company to another.

The unauthorized switching of service -- known as "slamming" -- has been a problem since the mid-1980s when consumers were first allowed to choose their long-distance carriers.

The Federal Communications Commission has warned consumers to be careful if they are called by telemarketers for a long-distance company.

Telemarketers, the FCC says, might "misinterpret any agreement on your part to let them send you information about their company to mean you are ordering their service."

Unauthorized switching problems, however, should be reduced by new FCC rules that became effective last month. The rules require stronger verification by long-distance companies when a customer agrees to switch service.

The company to which the customer is switching must verify the consumer's decision in one of the following ways:

* Written authorization sent to the company by the customer.

* Electronic authorization by the customer by calling a toll-free number at the company.

* A call to the customer by an independent third party separate from the telemarketing firm.

* An information package sent to the customer by the company confirming the switch.

Each of the methods requires specific information to ensure that the customer understands the change, and that it is the customer authorizing the switch.

Regardless of how well the new FCC rules work, you are your own best protection against slamming.

If you are interested in getting information about switching your service -- but haven't made a decision yet -- make sure the telemarketer understands that you are not authorizing a change.

Telemarketing isn't the only way long-distance companies sell their service. Sales booths at fairs and festivals are sometimes used. Be sure you know what you are signing.

Pay particular attention to correspondence from a long-distance company. Don't assume it's only sales materials and discard it. It might be a letter confirming the switch of your service.

Always check your phone bill, as Ms. Hoffman did, for long-distance switch charges. Local phone companies are separate from long-distance companies, but often are paid to handle their billing.

If you find an unauthorized switch charge, call the local company at the number listed for billing inquiries. The local company is required to help you correct the mistake.

You have the right to be switched back to your original long-distance carrier without any charge. You also are not liable for the unauthorized switch charge to the new company.

You are, however, generally liable for any calls you made on the unauthorized long-distance service.

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