Yellow Pages ad crowd seeing red

Verizon glitch: Some aren't billed, then really socked

May 11, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A Verizon computer error that is delaying $7.2 million in tax payments to Baltimore-area governments also has confounded thousands of Yellow Pages advertisers who weren't billed for their listings.

Company officials confirmed yesterday that about 2,800 business customers within the 410 area code have experienced billing problems that resulted in the omission of monthly advertising charges from their statements.

Some business owners became upset after the error was detected and they were asked to pay several months' worth of charges at one time. Costs can range from $6.50 a month for basic listings to $6,300 monthly for full-color double-page spreads.

"I almost fell off my chair," said Donald M. Gleiman, owner of Bond Lumber in Lutherville, when he opened his October 2000 bill. He owed $2,300, of which $1,598 was for a display advertisement that hadn't been billed since April. "What I said to them was I can't afford to pay that at one time."

Gleiman said he was treated rudely during several calls to Verizon as he tried to divide the charge into several payments and eliminate late fees and service charges.

"My experience tells me they are a large bureaucracy, much like the government," Gleiman said. "They were horribly nasty and arrogant." Stephanie Hobbs, a spokeswoman for Verizon Yellow Pages, said Gleiman deserves an apology for his treatment.

"He's an excellent customer," Hobbs said. "We're sorry if he feels in any way he was mishandled." Hobbs said many customers quickly realized the error and called to arrange payments.

The company is allowing advertisers to spread out their accumulated charges without penalties, and the problem has largely been solved, she said.

The Yellow Pages billing problem shares its roots with the tax-collection problem that came to light earlier this week.

Computer errors crept in as Verizon began reformatting its bills last year. In one error, the company failed to collect and pass on a local telephone tax levied by Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Combined, the three jurisdictions are down $7.2 million in tax revenue in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Verizon said it will back-bill more than 500,000 telephone customers to correct the mistake, which probably will cost consumers an additional $2 to $3 per month.

The city and two counties are the only Maryland localities that charge the tax.

The Maryland Public Service Commission has received few complaints about Verizon's billing, said spokeswoman Chrys Wilson.

About eight months ago, commission staffers summoned Verizon representatives to explain complaints related to customer service and work orders, Wilson said.

Since then, she said, the company's record has improved.

"At this point in time, the commission is pleased with Verizon's customer service performance," she said, adding that customers are encouraged to contact the PSC with problems or questions.

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