Hundreds complain monthly of inaccurate Ameritech phone charges--software glitches cited : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Ameritech billing practice under fire Hundreds complain monthly of inaccurate charges By LEE BERGQUIST of the Journal Sentinel staff Last Updated: Dec. 13, 2000 Ameritech customers continue to be erroneously billed for three-way calls they never made - more than two years after regulators slammed the company over the practice.

During the past two years, an average 536 customers have called Ameritech each month to get credits for an 85-cent service that allows three callers to talk at the same time.

The situation is under scrutiny by two state agencies because the mistaken charges are not going away. Representatives of both the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Public Service Commission said Wednesday they are looking into the matter.

It's also drawn the concern of a Milwaukee-area lawmaker who was charged nearly $20 over 14 months for a service he said he never used.

"I would like to see the system changed so people are not getting charged for calls they are not making," said Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin).

Ameritech spokesman Jeff Bentoff acknowledged the company has a problem and is trying to find out if it's a technical glitch or something else.

"It is definitely a problem when someone is billed for something that they did not want," Bentoff said.

The situation started after Ameritech began offering three-way calling on a per-call basis. To access the service, customers talking to one party press the disconnect button on their receiver briefly. They then call up the second party and quickly press the button again and connect all three parties.

But customers apparently are being billed for the service when they call someone - hang up - and then make a second call within a second or two. Ameritech recommends waiting about two seconds between each call to avoid kicking in the three-way service and a possible charge.

In July 1998, Ameritech signed an agreement with the state agriculture department and promised to credit customers who were billed erroneously. At the time, Ameritech blamed software glitches for the problem and agreed to credit 143,000 residential and business customers a total of $477,000.

Ameritech also gave consumers the opportunity to block the service - and some 100,000 customers have since taken advantage of the block.

As part of the agreement, Ameritech has been required to file monthly activity reports. Agency records show that over a two-year period ending in October that Ameritech doles out credits of about $3,198 a month to an average of 536 customers. Ameritech has about 2 million access lines in Wisconsin.

Gundrum said he fears that "a lot more people are probably affected by this - but they don't call because it's a hassle."

Gundrum said that when he called Ameritech to complain, a customer service representative told Gundrum, who never identified himself as a lawmaker, that Gundrum's children or guests probably used the service.

Gundrum was sure no visitors had used the phone.

As for his children, his daughters are 21/2 and six months old. He said he received a $1.70 credit as a "courtesy" when, in fact, Ameritech is required to credit customers for three-way calls that were never made.

Gundrum wrote a letter about his situation to three suburban weekly newspapers on Milwaukee's southwest side. As a result, his office received 45 calls, and many shared the same story as Gundrum - saying Ameritech blamed the problem on children or guests. While the company usually offered a credit, some customers said they never got one.

Consumer protection staff members with the agriculture department are concerned Ameritech might not be giving credits to everyone who calls. The agency is seeking support in the Legislature that would require phone companies to get consumers' credit in advance before offering per-call service.

"We don't want this to be a continuing problem," said William Oemichen, administrator of the Division of Consumer Protection.

Consumers who have questions about Ameritech services can call (800) 924-1000.

-- Carl Jenkins (, December 14, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ