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CONSUMER AFFAIRS / DENISE GELLENE

Pac Bell, TURN Disagree on Tactics

July 16, 1993|DENISE GELLENE

People who call Pacific Bell's new 24-hour information line can listen to a recorded message describing the company's proposed rate changes. But there's heated disagreement over whether the message is fair and accurate.

In its telephone message, Pacific Bell says that proposed rates for toll calls--or calls to points more than 16 miles from home--will fall by at least 20%. The company says that under its proposal, the average customer will pay 50 cents less for monthly phone service. The company acknowledges that basic rates (charges for calls within 16 miles of home) will rise, but does not say how much.

Audrie Krause, executive director of TURN (Toward Utility Rate Normalization), said the recording is "completely misleading." By her reckoning, basic rates will rise 60% and rates for low-income customers will rise 75%.

"This is a sleazy, crummy tactic," Krause said. She said the company is using a customer service line "that gives information about phone service to present a distorted view of what's going on."

Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen defended the message as balanced and fair. "Our proposal shows that overall rates will go down," she said, adding that most customers will see decreases despite a jump in basic rates. "We think you have to look at what will happen to the total phone bill."

Needless to say, TURN opposes Pacific Bell's proposed rate hikes. The state Public Utilities Commission is expected to announce a decision on Pac Bell's proposal today.

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The Family Card: Imagine a credit card, the solicitation says, with your name "splashed all over it like it's the name of a bank." MBNA, one of the country's largest credit card companies, is marketing a designer Visa card emblazoned with the cardholder's last name and family crest.

People who share some of the most common names in America are receiving mail solicitations for the vanity card. We came across one for Wood. As an inducement, applicants are told they will receive a free research report on the family name, "suitable for framing," if they take the card.

The card is among the hundreds of so-called affinity cards offered by MBNA. Its portfolio includes cards named for the American Dental Assn., the National Education Assn., a roster of college alumni associations and, soon, the National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. That card's special feature: Applicants choose which race car driver is pictured on individual cards.

With a variable rate starting at 15.9% and a $20 annual fee, the vanity card is a so-so offer, said credit card industry analyst Robert McKinley of Ram Research. There are cards with similar rates that have no annual fee, he said. Vanity has a price.

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You Be the Judge: After tempting its best customers with discounts and rebates, Sears, Roebuck & Co. is taking a new approach. In mailings this month, 6 million Sears customers are receiving recognition certificates to distribute to salespeople who provide outstanding service.

Sears tested the program last year at stores in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, where response varied. At one store, 300 sales employees received at least one certificate.

Sears customers don't get any financial benefit from the program. Sears spokesman Perry Chlan said customers like the program anyway because it gives them an opportunity to "be a judge and cast a vote" for sales people who provide good service. Sales people who receive certificates are also recognized by store management.

Chlan said the retailer is confident customers will use the certificates. "With all the discount programs we have," ranging from children's clothing to hand tools, "Sears customers are used to carrying around a lot of paper," he said.

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Odds and Ends: This summer, 1.4 million U.S. couples will marry, spending an average of $19,000 on the ceremony and honeymoon, according to Citibank. . . . American Telephone & Telegraph is matching the $35 checks that MCI is sending to AT&T customers to induce them to switch long-distance service. AT&T customers will get $35 off their phone bills. . . . Less than half of all American households--and 35% of baby boomers ages 25 to 44--are saving for retirement, according to the New York investment firm Merrill Lynch & Co.

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