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THE CUTTING EDGE | TELECOM TALK

There's Yet Another Phone Fraud: 'Sliding'

Newly competitive local toll-call market brings PUC tens of thousands of complaints about unauthorized switches.

July 29, 1999|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After just two months of full competition for local toll phone calls, state regulators have received tens of thousands of complaints of unauthorized carrier switching--a new form of fraud that regulators have dubbed "sliding."

Officials at the California Public Utilities Commission say the initial complaint figures for sliding are well above peak levels for slamming (the unauthorized switching of long-distance service) and cramming (the addition of unauthorized phone charges to a person's bill).

Sliding involves a customer's authorized long-distance carrier taking over service for local toll calls--those that fall between local zones and long-distance and typically cover phone calls made to locations more than 16 miles away--without the customer's knowledge or OK.

At about $1.6 billion a year, California is the U.S.' largest toll-call market.

In May, 495,593 Pacific Bell customers--individuals and businesses--changed toll-call providers. Of those, 15,635--or about 3%--reported that the switch was made without their consent, according to Bill Schulte, director of the PUC consumer services division.

In June, 64,225 customers said they were switched to another company without their consent--about 12% of the 523,846 who changed carriers that month, Schulte said.

The figures were reported to regulators by PacBell, the state's largest local phone company, and must be confirmed by the PUC.

The increase corresponds to the beginning of toll competition for customers of PacBell, which until recently automatically handled its customers' toll calls.

As of May 7, PacBell customers could select a phone company to handle toll calls, much as they designate their long-distance carrier. Customers of GTE Corp. already had the option of picking a local-toll carrier.

Schulte, calling the figures "startling," said one large long-distance carrier, which he would not name pending verification--may be responsible for more than half of the alleged sliding incidents.

"The numbers are two and three times the highest number of complaints we've had for slamming in any one month," Schulte said. "So if they turn out to be accurate, we have to seriously redirect resources into that area."

The three largest carriers--AT&T, MCI WorldCom and Sprint--are among the firms seeking toll-call customers in California.

To file a complaint about sliding, call the state PUC consumer services division at (800) 649-7570 weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4:45 p.m.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sliding Into First

As telecommunications competition grows, so does phone-related fraud. State and federal officials have stepped up efforts to halt slamming and cramming, but a new problem called "sliding" has emerged. Here are the most prevalent forms of phone fraud:

* Cramming: Unauthorized addition of services or charges (such as voicemail, Internet service or 900 number charges) to a phone bill.

* Slamming: Changing a customer's designated long-distance provider without permission.

* Sliding: Changing a customer's designated local toll carrier without permission.

Source: California Public Utilities Commission

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