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GTE Admits Releasing Unlisted Numbers

Privacy: Directories were mistakenly leased to telemarketers and will be recalled. About 50,000 customers are affected, company says.

April 17, 1998|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS and KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

GTE Corp., the state's second largest phone company, said it mistakenly printed tens of thousands of unlisted residential phone numbers and addresses in directories that are leased to telemarketers.

GTE, which has not yet informed customers of any errors, has reprinted the 19 affected editions--which only cover California--and this week quietly sent employees to collect and replace the flawed books.

The error was confirmed by GTE and the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the state's phone companies. PUC officials have pledged to investigate the matter.

"We're very concerned about this revelation," said Larry McNeely, chief litigation and resolution officer in the PUC's Consumer Services Division. "At this point, we are most concerned for the safety and integrity of those citizens who had their names and numbers accidentally published."

Stamford, Conn.-based GTE acknowledged that there are "errors" in the street directories.

"Those listings were in and they shouldn't have been," said Nancy Bavec, a GTE spokeswoman. "The situation did happen, and we apologize for it."

More than 1 million GTE residential phone customers in California pay $1.50 per month to maintain unlisted numbers. Company officials estimated that about 50,000 such numbers were affected.

The error has far-reaching implications in California, where more than half of all home phone numbers are unlisted. Residents jealously guard their personal information and the state has responded by passing dozens of privacy protection laws.

"This is a boo-boo of giant proportions," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based nonprofit consumer advocacy program. "I've heard of snafus, but not of that magnitude."

If found to be grossly negligent, GTE could face fines and penalties of up to $30,000 per affected customer.

McNeely said GTE told regulators about the problem last week. But internal memos obtained by The Times show that officials at GTE's Anaheim-based directory division knew of the mistake in early March.

"We wanted to get the books back as quickly and as quietly as possible because we didn't want the information to fall into the wrong hands," said GTE spokesman Larry Cox.

The company had planned to distribute the street directory information on computer discs, but delayed that program because of the error.

The street directories include names, demographic information, ZIP Codes and residential and business phone listings sorted by address and telephone number. These directories are not supposed to include unlisted names and phone numbers.

Though the practice is not widely known to the public, phone companies have for years culled data from their white pages and repackaged and resold the information to businesses.

GTE leases the directories to telemarketers, real estate agents and direct mail businesses, which use them for solicitation lists. Nearly 9,000 faulty books have been distributed, mostly in Southern California. GTE officials said they have retrieved about half of the books and expect to have 90% by Monday.

The street directories cover GTE's most populous service areas, from the Santa Barbara area south to Huntington Beach and east to Palm Springs. They lease for up to $80 for a six-month period.

The company said its heavily used white pages are not affected by the problem. GTE also publishes three street directories that cover Hawaii, but those were not affected.

GTE could pay dearly for the mistake.

State regulations would only require GTE to reimburse customers for "out-of-pocket charges"--in this case, the $1.50 per month they pay for the nonpublished numbers, said Tom Long, a telecommunications attorney with the Utility Reform Network in San Francisco.

But the PUC's McNeely said the commission could levy fines of up to $20,000 per customer for violating a rule that forbids a telephone company from revealing confidential customer information.

If GTE were found to be grossly negligent, it could be forced to pay customers up to $10,000 each in damages, Long said. If the mistake amounts to willful misconduct, the $10,000 cap would not apply, he said.

A GTE employee, who asked not to be identified, said several angry customers threatened to sue GTE over the disclosure of their phone numbers.

"GTE has a fiduciary duty to not make those public, especially to sectors that are most likely to invade your privacy--the telemarketers," said Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times, a newsletter based in Washington, D.C. "That's the primary reason people get unlisted phone numbers."

Others, such as crime victims, police officers and psychiatrists, may keep their numbers private for safety reasons.

GTE officials said Thursday that the company plans to notify customers who were affected by the error and offer them a new phone number. In addition, the customers will not be charged for nonpublished status for one year and will receive $25.

Earlier, GTE employees said some irate customers were given $100 and a new phone number.

But getting a new phone number can be very inconvenient, said Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Also, customers who want to drop GTE may be out of luck because the company may have no substantive competitors for local phone service.

Givens also noted that unlisted phone numbers often find their way into telemarketing databases through other means, such as contest entries and credit card applications.

Companies such as pizza outlets and catalog retailers often use phone numbers to retrieve customer records out of databases when they call to place orders.

"Your phone number is like a secondary Social Security number," said Hendricks of Privacy Times.

Customers who think they may have been affected can call (800) 483-8387 or e-mail the company at custlink@GTE.net

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