AOL customers livid over huge phone bills after area-code switch

The New York state attorney general's office is monitoring a dispute between customers of a phone company in Rochester, N.Y., and America Online Inc. after receiving more than 50 complaints from customers who received phone bills in the thousands of dollars after a switch in area codes changed their dial-up connection from local to long distance.

The dispute surfaced last month when customers of Frontier Telephone Co. in Rochester began receiving huge phone bills after an area-code change that went into effect in November.

Frontier spokesman Tor Constantino said the problem arose because the phone company was required under state law to connect phone calls made with the old area code. Dulles, Va.-based AOL's dial-up software was using the old area code and the calls were connected, but instead of being billed as local calls to Rochester, the calls were billed as long distance calls to Buffalo, N.Y., he said. The result was phone bills in the thousands of dollars for customers who didn't change their dial-up connections to local phone numbers.

In addition, Constantino said, many phone customers are reporting that even when they did switch the area codes on their dial-up connections, AOL's software would often self-select a long-distance number if the primary and secondary dial-up numbers were busy.

Attempts to reach an AOL spokesman today for comment were unsuccessful.

Debbie Sanza of Webster, N.Y., said her family of four, which has an AOL account, had a second phone line installed solely for their computer. The average bill for the second phone line was about $25 per month.

In January, Sanza said, she received a bill for more than $1,400.

"I looked at it, and I thought that was really weird, and I thought they made a mistake," Sanza said. "I thought this was impossible."

Sanza said she then called Frontier and was told that the bill was accurate. She then called AOL looking for relief but was told it was an issue between her and her phone company. While fighting the first bill, Sanza said she has since received a second bill, which put the family's total phone bill at more than $2,500.

What infuriates Sanza, she says, is that a neighbor who uses AT&T Corp. as her Internet service provider received a phone call from an AT&T representative who inquired about the sudden jumps in her long-distance charges. The neighbor then changed her dial-up connection to a local number.

Sanza didn't receive such a call from Frontier, but when she called the company, Sanza said, Frontier told her that it did notice the jump in long-distance charges to her account, but because she was a customer in good standing, the company didn't feel it had to notify her.

Constantino said that Frontier warned customers that this might happen in advance of the area-code switch. He said literature and a special company Web site set up for the area-code switch includes computer modem numbers in its checklist of "telephone services that may need to be reviewed."

Although the company understands the situation is "obviously uncomfortable for the customer," Constantino said, Frontier doesn't know what else it's supposed to do. "Another issue that is important to point out is that Frontier is not responsible for these long-distance charges," he said. "If they had a neighbor who uses their phone and makes a long-distance call, they are responsible.

"Only in this case, it was AOL's software that has dialed the number," Constantino said. "The calls are coming from the customer's computers."

Constantino said that Frontier has tried to discuss the matter with AOL but that as far as he knew, AOL hasn't responded. He added that this is a familiar issue to AOL because there is a class-action lawsuit pending against the Internet service provider in Tampa, Fla., on the same subject. That suit was certified as national class action in August.

Brad Maione, a spokesman for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said the office has received more than 50 complaints from residents in the Rochester area. He said taht the office would be watching the situation closely but that it hasn't begun an investigation into the high bills. "We're taking a closer look," Maione said.

In February 2000, attorney Lance Harke at firm Harke & Clasby LLP in Miami filed a class-action lawsuit against AOL in U.S. District Court in Tampa on behalf of Maurgerite Miles of Florida and Patty Colclasure of Kansas after the pair received phone bills for thousands of dollars after signing up with AOL.

The suit stems out of a "carpet-bombing campaign" in which AOL offered 700 hours of free service to consumers across the country. "'Carpet bombing' is what they called the campaign in their own internal documents," said Harke.

The suit charges that AOL offered the 700 hours of free service knowing it didn't have local access numbers for subscribers to use when they were calling in to connect. The result was that many consumers ended up calling long-distance numbers without knowing it until the bills came in, he said.

Harke said other online service providers have pop-up screens that tell consumers they may be calling a long-distance number when choosing a dial-up connection, but AOL does not. He said he believes that the people in the Rochester case will be covered in the class-action lawsuit that was certified in August and survived an AOL attempt to have it dismissed in November. The practice of not having the dial-up connection numbers change when an area-code changes was covered in the original suit, he said.

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