Marylanders victimized by switching Long-distance service changed to WorldCom without permission

Clerical error blamed

More than 53,000 affected

WorldCom offers free corrections

Telecommunications

December 16, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

More than 53,000 Marylanders -- mostly in Columbia and Baltimore County -- have had their long-distance service switched without their consent in the last three weeks, Bell Atlantic said yesterday.

But a spokesman for the company that ordered the changes, WorldCom Inc., said that it's all a mistake and that a letter has gone out to all affected customers with instructions on switching back to their desired carriers at no cost.

The common term for nonconsensual long-distance switching is "slamming." But Steve Ingish, a spokesman for Jackson, Miss.-based WorldCom, said that word should not apply to this situation.

"I would object to the term slamming," he said. "Slamming suggests an intentional switching of customers. This was not done intentionally. It was an error, pure and simple."

A spokesman for MCI said yesterday that the company was unaware of the problem. Last month, WorldCom and MCI announced plans for a $37 billion merger, which, if approved, would be the largest in U.S. corporate history.

According to Ingish, the problem arose from a relationship between WorldCom and one of the many smaller companies that use the telecommunications giant's lines to provide service.

This client company, a "dial-around" service that offers phone savings to customers who dial a five-digit code before entering the phone number, had sent out a promotional mass-mailing. In order to facilitate its client's billing procedures, WorldCom put together a list of the people who got the mailing.

Problem was, the electronic file containing this list was accidentally sent to Bell Atlantic as a routine customer-switching order.

Ingish said he believed all of the erroneously switched customers were in the 410 area code, which includes Baltimore and eastern Maryland.

Milton Allen of Baltimore discovered he might have a problem when he was in church last week and learned that some of his fellow worshipers had their long-distance services switched without their consent from AT&T or MCI to WorldCom.

When he returned home, Allen -- a retired Bell Atlantic engineering director -- found out that he, too, had been switched from AT&T to WorldCom. He called his son-in-law, who told him that he had also been switched without his knowledge or permission.

"It didn't inconvenience me, but it sure aggravated me," Allen said. "They had no authority to switch me."

Allen said he had not received a letter from WorldCom.

Ingish said it was impossible for WorldCom to automatically switch customers back to their original long-distance carriers because the company couldn't determine the original carrier for each affected consumer.

Bell Atlantic has sent out a letter of its own to customers who may have been erroneously switched by WorldCom. The letter asks customers to call Bell Atlantic to be switched back to their former long-distance company.

Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said her company was assisting those affected by WorldCom's mistake, but that some customers were having a difficult time getting back on the calling plans they had been part of before being switched.

Regulators said WorldCom has some explaining to do. Maryland Public Service Commission spokeswoman Chrys Wilson said, "The commission has expressed its concern in reference to this matter. It's waiting for WorldCom's response as to how it will remedy this situation.

"The commission is very concerned about the customers who were slammed," she said. "It's not fair to consumers to take these sorts of action without permission."

According to Wilson, PSC Chairman H. Russell Frisby Jr. already has first-hand knowledge of the matter: He was among those whose service had been switched.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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