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How to avoid a $400 "free" ISP phone bill

An Internet user falls into the unfortunate trap of mistaking a local toll call and is faced with a $400 phone bill. A quick read of the ISP's user agreement could have helped the situation.

Dong Xie, an Illinois software engineer, signed up for AltaVista's free Internet access service a month ago. This month he got a nasty surprise in his mail--a $400 phone bill.

Suspecting a scam of some kind, he immediately called his phone company and AltaVista, but was told he had been using a "local toll" number--essentially a long distance number that was in the same area code, but not close enough to be a genuine local toll-free call.

Xie had fallen into a trap common to unwary Internet users, and one that has become increasingly dangerous with the advent of free ISP services. Because users can easily download and sign up for services like AltaVista or NetZero, many people are tempted to skip the step of reading the specifics of their user agreements.

And that, as Xie found out, can be a costly mistake. AltaVista gave him a list of apparently local calls to access their service, and he chose one at random. But not all calls that appear to be local are, in fact, free. Xie was charged 7 cents per minute while on the Net--all while using a number inside his own area code.

Most ISPs user agreements prominently point out the dangers of toll calls to keep this type of situation from happening.

"Please keep in the mind the numbers shown here may be toll calls from your area," AltaVista's sign-up instruction page reads. "Check with your phone company to find out which number is the least expensive to use. You are responsible for any long distance telephone charges incurred while dialing into the FreeAccess network."

"It is the user's responsibility to make sure it's a free call," added AltaVista spokesman David Emanuel. "It's no different than if they were to make an everyday call within their own area code."

But the problem with the current system is that few consumers actually know there is a difference between local and local toll numbers.

A local toll number is essentially one in an area that is close to a caller's location, but still far enough away to be outside the boundary of genuine local calls. The rules for this vary from area to area and from phone company to phone company, but it's not always clear from a number alone whether it will be a toll number or not.

The best way to make sure a number is toll free is to talk to the local phone company. But since many consumers aren't aware of the existence of local toll calls, few go to this trouble.

"We get [this kind of situation] all the time," said Ed Hansen, chief spokesman for MindSpring Enterprises, another ISP that serves customers across the nation. "People threaten from to sue us all the time. But nobody ever has."

MindSpring is careful to include a message with all its access numbers noting that some may be toll calls, and that it's the user's responsibility to ensure that any call made is free. But the ISP's customer service nevertheless consistently receives calls from confused users with high phone bills, and is now experienced in working with local phone companies to help reduce these bills.

Xie is now working with AltaVista to see if they can help him with his $400 phone bill. AltaVista says this is the first time they've heard of this happening with one of their customers. But if MindSpring and other ISPs' experience is any guide, it won't be the last.