Customers mistakenly billed for 3-way calls Bell Atlantic blames glitch in software


November 22, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Arthur Shanker got a surprise in the mail.

When the Pikesville insurance claims adjuster looked over his Oct. 20 office phone bill, he noticed that Bell Atlantic had charged him for 32 three-way calls he insists he never made.

"I was somewhat incensed," Shanker, 64, recalled. He called the phone company and got the $24 charge credited back to his account.

Shanker wasn't alone in seeking a little three-way leeway. Bell Atlantic has received complaints from other customers who have been charged incorrectly for the service. The company says a software glitch has caused its computers to identify some calls mistakenly as three-way conversations.

"We have fixed the problem now, but it may be that some people who haven't gotten bills yet may have that show up," said Joan Rasmussen, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman. "We have had customers who have called us and we've given them credit on their bills. We're giving people the benefit of the doubt at this point."

The software problem was linked to the introduction of a new service feature. Bell Atlantic has long offered unlimited three-way calling on a monthly subscription basis. On Sept. 15, the company began offering the service on a per-use basis in Baltimore. An infrequent three-way caller could pay 75 cents per use without having to pay the $3.50 monthly charge.

However, Bell Atlantic's computers had a hard time telling three-way calls from normal, two-way calls. A three-way call is accomplished by briefly pressing the switch hook during a call and then dialing a third party.

Trouble was, callers who hung up at the end of a two-way call and immediately began another were mistakenly thought to have made a three-way call. That apparently explains the erroneous bill at Shanker's company, where phone calls end and begin in speedy succession.

"When you're a small business, you try to utilize time quickly," Shanker said.

Rasmussen attributed the errors to the novelty of the program.

"This is the first time we've ever offered this on a per-use basis anywhere. This is, in essence, a trial run," she said. "When we do something for the first time, we learn from it. We certainly don't want to have these things happen again."

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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