On Your Side: For Whom the Baby Bell Tolls

SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - Jon Simon of Carmel, California, recently opened his phone bill and got an unpleasant surprise--nearly $200 in AT&T Corp. long-distance charges for calls he'd made to access RedShift, his Internet service provider. Simon had been connecting via the same number for several years without paying any long-distance charges. So he contacted AT&T and was told that he should only have been charged long-distance rates if the number his PC dialed included an area code--which it didn't. So it must have been a local call, right?

Don't be so sure. Lately, several readers have reported similar predicaments--with some of them facing up to $1500 in telephone charges.

Most ISPs clearly state that they are not responsible for long-distance charges incurred on dial-up Internet access, nor are they responsible for ensuring that the access numbers they provide are local. And contrary to what Simon was told, a number isn't necessarily local just because it's in your area code, nor is a number that's outside the area code always long distance. "Area codes are constantly being added and calling areas restructured," says AT&T spokesperson Ritch Blasi, "and billing problems sometimes result...If your calling area changes and you don't update your dial-up number, those calls could show up on your long-distance bill."

How can you avoid getting caught in the telecommunications web? Before you sign on with an ISP, contact both your local and long-distance providers to verify that your access number is, in fact, local. Be sure to regularly compare your ISP's access numbers against the most recent area code changes--you can find up-to-date area code maps at www.nanpa.com. And finally, review your phone bill carefully each month to catch any unrecognized long-distance charges.

VISOR ADVISORY: I've heard from several readers who ordered Visor handheld computers from Handspring and waited weeks beyond the promised shipping date for delivery. Handspring representative Allen Bush reports that the company underestimated demand, then ran into technical problems with its customer database. He predicts that order processing should be back up to speed by the time you read this... Road Warriors, Unite: Fed up with flight delays, car rental snafus, and rude hotel clerks? Visit www.passengerrights.com. The site offers a discussion forum for travel-related travails, plus information on consumer rights and liabilities, guidelines for effective complaint letters, and specific policies of airlines, car rental companies, and hotels. It will even forward your complaints directly to the individuals at travel companies who can best address customer problems... Change Your Password, or Else:

Pacific Bell Internet Services recently told a group of customers that a reported attack on its network (among others) had possibly given hackers access to user passwords. As a security precaution, the ISP decided that subscribers would have to change their passwords in order to access their accounts. The lesson here: Change your password often, because hackers may attack any ISP.

I PURCHASED A Gateway computer under my wife's name in August 1998, and she passed away in December 1999. Now Gateway tells me the PC is no longer under warranty, and I will not be permitted to trade it in next August because it underwent a change of ownership with her death.

James Wharton

Birmingham, Alabama

On Your Side responds: I spoke with Gateway's manager of corporate communications, Tyson Heyn, who says it is Gateway's policy to allow transfer of ownership in the event of a customer's death. "We want to support customers and family members in that situation. Unfortunately, we've had some [internal] miscommunication among our groups about the [warranty transfer] policy," says Heyn, "but we are now clarifying it within the organization." Gateway reports that it has reinstated the computer's warranty and apologized to Wharton.

Or a great one? E-mail the details to onyourside@pcworld.com. We'll investigate complaints and publish items of the broadest interest. Anne Kandra is a contributing editor for PC World.

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