Bell's 'CALL54' option sets off privacy alarms Some customers don't want their addresses given out

December 10, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Bell Atlantic is seeking permission from the Public Service Commission to offer a "reverse directory assistance service" that would allow callers in Maryland and West Virginia to punch in a phone number and get the corresponding name, address and ZIP code.

However, some customers have voiced concerns that the service could place such information in the wrong hands.

The proposed service, known as CALL54, would enable callers to get name and address information for up to three phone numbers by dialing the area code and 555-5454.

There would be a charge for each call, though the precise fee for Maryland users has yet to be determined. In New Jersey, the only state where Bell Atlantic currently offers CALL54, the cost per use is 50 cents.

Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said the company hopes to win PSC approval of CALL54 this month, and begin statewide service in January.

Maryland Assistant People's Counsel John Sayles said his office has received complaints and inquiries regarding the service, "mostly from people concerned about privacy issues."

PSC spokeswoman Chrys Wilson said the people who had contacted her office to complain about CALL54 "are concerned about privacy."

"We're curious to see what the privacy mechanisms are going to be," she said.

Arnette said the service poses no significant threat to privacy. She said customers who do not want their names and addresses to be made available can opt out of the service at no charge simply by calling a toll-free number and making a request.

"We understand there are privacy concerns," she said. "We're sensitive to those concerns. That's why we have an opt-out option."

She added that CALL54 is hardly the only place where one's name and address can be tracked down in the Digital Age.

Already available

"This information is already available in specialized directories, on the Internet, on CD-ROM," she said. "We think our service will be the best because our information is updated all the time."

Not all customers are persuaded by such arguments. Bill Lonsdale, a retired Defense Department employee from Laurel, is one of the Bell Atlantic customers who has complained to the people's counsel.

"Just because a lot of people are selling addresses doesn't make it right," he said. "Would I want somebody to whom I haven't given my address to have my address? The answer is no."

Like other customers, Lonsdale received a bright yellow insert advertising the new service in his November phone bill. The insert stated that name and address information for nonlisted customers would not be available through CALL54. However, the service will make available addresses of customers who, like Lonsdale, list their numbers but not their addresses in the phone book.

Lonsdale said the opt-out provision on the insert is an inadequate safeguard for people who are too busy or infirm to peruse their bill.

"You can only use it if you notice it and understand it," he said. "A lot of people who would not like their addresses used don't opt out and get their privacy abused by default."

3,000 calls a day

Customer service representatives staffing Bell Atlantic's opt-out line, 888-579-0323, said requests are coming in at a heavy rate. Supervisors at the phone center would not comment on the number of requests, but one service representative said the center was handling about 3,000 calls per day. Arnette said Maryland's opt-out rate was "on track with" that of New Jersey, where about 5 percent of customers asked that their name and address not be made available.

She said CALL54 would help customers identify phone numbers that appear on Caller ID, verify phone bill charges and perform credit checks.

"We think it will be useful for both residents and businesses," Arnette said.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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