Millions in overcharges blamed on C&P mistake

October 12, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

A computer glitch caused thousands of telephone customers in Anne Arundel County to be assessed millions of dollars in overcharges from July 1987 until August 1991, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. said yesterday.

According to C&P, the problem stemmed from some programming instructions that were supposed to gradually eliminate an Anne Arundel telephone services tax from monthly phone bills. The tax applied only to non-basic phone services such as call-waiting and call-forwarding and ranged from 8 cents to more than 50 cents per service.

As a collection agent for the county, C&P assessed the monthly tax on its Anne Arundel customers, then passed the money on to the county. The tax, which was applied to everyone but non-profit groups and government customers, showed up on bills under the heading "local tax."

Under the county plan, the telephone services tax was supposed to be phased out until its elimination in July 1987.

But the C&P programming error apparently caused the reverse to happen: Instead of killing out the tax, C&P's computer software started inflating the monthly tax assessment on some Anne Arundel customers.

According to Jeanine Smetana, a C&P spokeswoman, the glitch caused the monthly tax to escalate instead of diminish during 1986. Charges continued to accrue undetected for the next five years, leading to millions of dollars in overcharges to Anne Arundel customers.

The programming error was finally caught by a C&P employee in August.

C&P subsequently launched an investigation into the matter. That led to a retooling of the errant software -- and the elimination of the long-defunct telephone services tax from Anne Arundel phone bills.

C&P eventually plans to issue credits or refunds to affected customers, but it isn't clear when that will happen. That's because C&P still doesn't know exactly how much customers have overpaid since 1986, Ms. Smetana said.

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