Bill aims to disconnect practice of 'slamming'; Companies that change long-distance service would receive harsh fine; Legislation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Legislation aimed at protecting consumers from having their long-distance telephone service illegally switched got a warm reception yesterday in Annapolis, as lawmakers listened sympathetically to horror stories and suggested tougher penalties for violators.

With her own tale of telephone woe, Del. Elizabeth Bobo urged members of the House Environmental Matters Committee to approve a bill she is sponsoring that aims to halt "slamming," when companies switch customers' long-distance phone service without their consent or knowledge.

Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, said she and her husband were victims of slamming in late 1997. They discovered their long-distance calling card no longer worked when they tried telephoning home during a vacation in Puerto Rico.

"We called and called," she said. "Finally they said, 'You're not one of our customers anymore.' "

More than 50,000 Marylanders had their long-distance service changed in that incident, which was labeled an accident by the company involved.

Consumer advocates said yesterday that complaints about slamming were growing nationwide.

Bobo proposed amending her bill yesterday to counter "cramming," the practice of selling customers extra phone services they did not request, such as call waiting or personal toll-free numbers.

Under Bobo's bill, consumers would be excused from having to pay for unwanted services if they discover them within 90 days. The state Public Service Commission would be empowered to penalize violators up to $1,000 per incident.

"This will definitely strengthen Maryland's hand in protecting consumers," said John Sayles, a lawyer with the Office of People's Counsel.

Del. Ron Guns, the committee chairman, suggested tougher penalties, up to $5,000 per violation, in the bill.

There are federal regulations aimed at curbing slamming, and Maryland's Public Service Commission is considering whether to issue rules covering slamming and cramming.

But witnesses said state legislation is needed. The Senate is considering an anti-slamming bill sponsored by President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The House measure drew qualified support from Bell Atlantic Corp., whose customers often are victims of the two practices.

"There's a lot of money to be made in this game," said Sean Looney, the company's government relations manager. "The unscrupulous folks are always a step ahead of the regulations."

While Bell Atlantic prefers federal regulation of telephone issues, Looney said the company could live with the General Assembly's proposed penalties for unauthorized tampering with customers' service.

"We don't do this, Mr. Chairman," he told Guns. "And if we do, we should be penalized."

Pub Date: 3/05/99

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