A phantom telephone tax has been striking thousands of cell phone subscribers in Howard County since August, and a major wireless company has confessed to the overbilling.
The extra charge - identified as a county tax - has been appearing on the monthly bills of an estimated 15,000 Howard cell phone users, typically adding $4 to $5 to the total. The problem is, Howard imposes no such tax.
Complaints to the county's Office of Consumer Affairs has prompted an investigation, and yesterday, Cingular Wireless acknowledged making the errors and pledged to credit the accounts of everyone who was overcharged.
Representatives of Verizon and Sprint PCS, two other large cell phone marketers in this region, said their companies have not discovered similar errors.
Stephen D. Hannan, Howard County's consumer affairs administrator, said his office has looked at a number of bills, and that some of them list an 8 percent county tax. "We are attempting to find out now how widespread this is," he said. "We're getting cooperation" in correcting the bills, he added.
The problem came to light when a resident complained to county Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks, who knew that although Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties all have local telephone taxes, Howard does not.
"Clearly, we don't have the tax, and we don't have the authority to levy it," Wacks said. Prince George's County imposed a telephone tax this year.
Bill Theiss, a Howard County Council employee, noticed the $4.41 county tax charge on his $66.50 August cell phone bill from Cingular Wireless. "I happened to see it, and when I got around to calling them, they realized they were doing some reprogramming and inadvertently put Howard in," he said.
Deanna Peel, another council worker, said she found the charge on her October bill. It was removed after she called, she said. Other cell phone users have not seen the tax on their bills.
"There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason here. It's not a ZIP code thing, it's not that predictable. It's much more random," Hannan said.
He speculated that since Prince George's County recently began collecting the tax, phone companies could be confused about whom to charge.
"We're going to be seeking credits," Hannan said. "We're not sure if this is `the computer made me do it' or because of some matrix in the [computer] code."
Kate Paxton, a spokeswoman for Cingular, said the Prince George's tax, which that county began collecting in September, caused the confusion. Some Howard subscribers have either the same telephone exchange or the same ZIP code, or both, as residents of Prince George's County.
"Because of this error, residents of Howard County were erroneously taxed for a new [8 percent] Prince George's County tax," Paxton said. "We're issuing credits for everybody."
Lisa Ihde, a spokeswoman for Sprint PCS, said her firm mistakenly charged customers in Montgomery County in August for a tax the county had repealed but has not made errors on Howard bills.
John Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon, said some tax entries may have changed on bills because of a new federal law called the Mobile Telephone Sourcing Act, under which taxes are assessed based on where the phone is primarily used, not where the owner lives.
Hannan said he will press on. "We need to get it straightened out," he said. "People don't look at their bills all that often" and so may blindly pay the fee without realizing it. "They just write the check," he said.
Hannan urged Howard County residents who notice "county tax" charges on their cell phone bills to call their cell phone company and report the error and also contact his office at 410-313-6420.