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AT&T bills local calls as long distance
Computer glitch causes AT&T local-service customers to be overbilled by hundreds of dollars each.
Thursday, March 16, 2000
BY CHRIS KNAPE KALAMAZOO GAZETTE
Between Christmas and early February, AT&T billed Carol Mullen of Kalamazoo more than $1,100 for local telephone calls.
John and Jane VanderVen of Portage were charged more than $300 for cross-town calls.
Kalamazoo Gazette reporter David Hager was billed for more than $400 - more than 17 cents per minute in some cases - by the long-distance giant for local calls from his Parchment home.
They are not alone.
A computer problem resulted in all Kalamazoo- and Battle Creek-area subscribers to AT&T's local phone service being billed long-distance rates for local calls made between late December and Feb. 11.
The company is in the process of resolving the problem, AT&T Public Relations Director Mike Pruyn said Wednesday.
The billing errors apparently do not affect those with local service from Ameritech or GTE nor did they affect billing for AT&T long distance or other toll calls.
Pruyn said the error that caused the improper billing was resolved Feb. 11. But until they were told of the problem by a Kalamazoo Gazette reporter on Tuesday, company officials said they were not aware customers were still being called by AT&T collections operators demanding payment for incorrect bills.
The company will be correcting the bills - a process it calls "scrubbing" - and has notified its collections and customer-service departments that nonpayments are the result of the company's error, Pruyn said.
Those who have already paid long-distance rates for local calls should automatically have their accounts credited, he said.
Pruyn would not say how many local-service customers AT&T has in the Kalamazoo area.
The company no longer offers new local-telephone service in Michigan for residential customers. Those still using AT&T for local service signed up between March 1997 and March 1998, when AT&T offered local service in the area by reselling service from Ameritech. Ameritech controls local telephone sevice in most of Michigan.
Pruyn said AT&T lost billions of dollars in its effort to sign up local subscribers in a six-state area.
Of the AT&T customers a Gazette reporter spoke with Tuesday and Wednesday, all said they'd spent too much time with the telephone company trying to work out the problem.
All of them also said AT&T promised them in February the problem would be rectified and that they wouldn't receive letters or telephone calls threatening to shut off their service.
But at the VanderVen residence, the letters kept coming, and phones kept ringing. The VanderVens said their last call from AT&T came Friday, when the company threatened to cut off service if their bill wasn't paid in full.
When AT&T called Mullen, she said, the company didn't want to hear her side of the story. She said she felt harassed by the written and verbal warnings she received.
Jane VanderVen said she subtracted the excess charges, paid what she thought she owed and enclosed a note explaining the problem. She said a customer-service operator later told her such notes are usually discarded without being read.
On one occasion, Mullen said, she was told to pay AT&T the full amount and wait until the situation was taken care of, after which she'd get a credit on her account.
Pruyn said he was at a loss to explain the service problems the customers said they encountered.
"That's not the kind of service we've prided ourselves on for the past 100 years. That's uncalled for," Pruyn said after being read a letter Mullen wrote to the Gazette about her problems.
"Obviously we should not have been calling her if it's a problem that we're having. Obviously we're not going to charge anybody for calls that are billed incorrectly."
Since abandoning its earlier attempt at local telephone service, AT&T has taken another run at the local market by purchasing cable-television giants Tele-Communications Inc. and MediaOne. AT&T plans to use the cable TV's fiber-optic network to provide local-phone service.
"We definitely would love to migrate those customers to AT&T local service provided by cable telephony," Pruyn said. "So we want to keep these customers happy, because we also realize if they leave AT&T they may take their long-distance service too."
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