DOWNEY — Six months ago, Harvey Fiala looked at his telephone bill and found he had been charged long-distance rates for calls to West Covina.
"I was shocked," recalled Fiala, 51, a soft-spoken computer engineer.
"It cost 23 cents for the first minute and 16 cents for each minute thereafter and this place (West Covina) is only about 15 miles from us as the crow flies."
After what Fiala described as a "big runaround," General Telephone Co., a subsidiary of GTE, gave him a refund Wednesday for $211.07 for overcharging on calls made from Dec. 1 to May 24.
A GTE spokesman conceded Thursday that Fiala had been overcharged and said that during that same six-month period other residential and business customers had been overcharged as well. The overcharging occurred on calls between the Downey exchange, which includes Norwalk, and the Covina exchange, which includes Covina, West Covina, and Baldwin Park.
The two exchanges have 93,000 customers, but the phone company has no idea how many customers are affected, said Hal Compton, public affairs administrator for GTE's Long Beach office. He said the "computer programming error" was discovered and corrected May 24.
The company plans a special computer check to determine how many customers have been affected, Compton said. The company will notify customers of the overcharges on July bills and give refunds in the form of credits on future monthly bills, Compton said. He added that company officials do not know how much money will be refunded but that it "could amount to thousands of dollars."
"We feel that we have a responsibility to bill our customers properly," Compton said. "When it was brought to our attention that we were not, we felt a responsibility to correct that situation. Had we known earlier, we would have taken action earlier."
Phone company records show that Fiala made his first request for a refund May 21, although he may have had "preliminary discussions" with other phone company officials, Compton said.
"That's a bunch of bull," Fiala said. He said he made repeated requests for refunds from the company since January, not only for himself but for other customers as well. He said that he was promised credits on monthly bills in February, March, April and May, but the credits were never made. He then demanded a refund, he said. He added that officials told him that they could not personally do anything about refunds for other customers but that they would "upward refer the problem."
Kyle DeVine, a consumer affairs representative at the state Public Utilities Commission, said the agency made a complaint on behalf of Fiala on May 30.
She said she has not yet heard from the company, which has until June 14 to respond.
Compton said the decision to make the refunds was made by officials at General Telephone corporate headquarters in Santa Monica. He said officials there "were working on the problem" but that a phone call from The Times "sped up the thing."
The overcharging occurred when a telephone company employee made an error in transcribing new rates into a computer, Compton said. The error resulted in the company charging long-distance day rates of 23 cents a minute for the first minute and 14 cents on subsequent minutes on calls between the Downey and Covina exchanges, Compton said. The correct day rates for the two exchanges, which are about 16 miles from each other, should be 10 cents a minute for the first minute and 5 cents for subsequent minutes, Compton said.
If each of the 93,000 customers were overcharged on one five-minute day-rate phone call per month for six months, the refunds would amount to 49 cents a call, or a total of $273,420.
Fiala was not mollified by the company's decision.
"I don't get any particular satisfaction," he said. "I'd rather be with my family than fighting stupid battles like this because it all comes out of my sleep and work time."