Free money from the long-distance companies?
Don't bet on it.
American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and MCI Communications Corp. are sending out checks for $10 and $20, respectively, to consumers nationwide. To receive the cash, consumers need only endorse the back of the check and deposit it in their bank account.
But the "free" money has a string attached: Consumers who cash the checks are automatically switched to that long-distance carrier.
"I think this is really low-down," said Mrs. James Drake of Annapolis, who received a $20 check from MCI
last week along with the packet of advertising information that accompanies each check.
Mrs. Drake, a retired book editor and AT&T stockholder, said she immediately honed in on advertising language that spelled out terms and conditions for cashing the MCI-issued check. But Mrs. Drake said she was concerned others may not catch on until after they've been switched.
"I would think a lot of people would automatically put it in the bank right away," she said. "I think it's a real shocker."
AT&T's giveaway program, which was first used last year, is still operating. MCI's giveaway program was in effect for the month of February, but people who received MCI checks
have until April 15 to cash them.
Spokesmen for MCI and AT&T defended their respective campaigns, saying there is nothing deceptive about their "free" money campaigns.
Moreover, company spokesmen said advertising materials included with checks, as well as the checks themselves, clearly state that people who endorse and cash checks will be switched.
"There's absolutely no mistake in the material that accompanies this [check] that if you sign this, you are being switched to AT&T," said Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman.
Likewise, Wayne Gattinella, vice president of consumer marketing for MCI, said MCI's advertising materials clearly state that customers who
cash the checks are consenting to be switched to MCI.
While nobody is accusing the Big Two of engaging in deceptive advertising, some consumer advocates are concerned that such campaigns do little, if anything, to advance public awareness about long-distance services. US Sprint is the only one that doesn't engage in such marketing
"It's not deceptive but it certainly is questionable," said Janelle Cousino of the Maryland Citizen Action Coalition, a Baltimore-based consumer advocacy group.
"People find long-distance service so complicated anyway," Ms. Cousino said, "that I can't imagine this adds any clarity to the subject whatsoever."