Factory flaw inflates AOL bill Packard Bell-NEC buyers find their online program used $2-per-hour number


ORLANDO, Fla. -- Chris Shipman of Orlando treated herself to a new computer in January. She brought it home, fired up her America Online program and wandered in cyberspace for the first time.

It was all pretty thrilling for the first 30 days. That is, until Shipman got her first AOL bill in March -- for more than $600.

Worse yet, the money had been deducted directly from her checking account.

"I was stunned," said Shipman, 32, a waitress at Walt Disney World's Polynesian hotel. "I was shaking. That was my rent money."

Shipman had been expecting to pay $19.95, AOL's standard monthly charge for unlimited time online. After spending nearly a week making frantic phone calls to AOL's customer service department, Shipman said she was told she would get a full refund, which she expects in the mail soon.

It turned out that her Packard Bell-NEC computer -- and those belonging to "several thousand" other new Packard Bell-NEC owners nationwide -- were programmed incorrectly at the factory.

Instead of initially calling a toll-free number that would lead to TC list of local access numbers, Shipman's AOL program dialed an 800 number for which the online service charges $2 a hour. The surcharge number typically is used by business travelers so that they can reach AOL no matter where they are.

AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said the online giant is still trying to determine exactly how many new subscribers were affected.

The company will post an online message in about two weeks to notify subscribers of the mistake and instruct them on how to file for refunds.

A spokeswoman for Packard Bell-NEC in Sacramento, Calif.. said the company is investigating how the mistake occurred. She said the problem was "isolated" to computers sold in January and did not affect machines on retail shelves now.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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