Six months ago, Downey resident Harvey Fiala looked at his telephone bill and found that 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 last week for $211.07 for overcharging on calls made from Dec. 1, 1984, to May 24.
A GTE spokesman conceded that Fiala had been overcharged and said that during that same six-month period, other residential and business customers had been billed too much 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 that a computer programming error was discovered and corrected on May 24.
The company plans a special computer check to determine how many customers have been affected, Compton said. It 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 on 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 that he had made repeated requests for refunds 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 that 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.
Carole Kretzer, PUC information officer, said her agency has given GTE until mid-July to respond to Fiala complaint, adding that phone company has agreed to make refunds to all. "The point is everyobody is going to get their money back."
Compton said the decision to make the refunds was made by officials at General Telephone corporate headquarters in Santa Monica. He said that 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 are 10 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each subsequent minute, Compton said.
If all 93,000 affected 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, 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."