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Users hit up for Moldova calls

Web surfers who unwittingly racked up hefty phone bills through sex sites may have to pay, despite the FTC crackdown on the alleged scheme.

Web surfers who unwittingly racked up hefty international phone bills through "adult entertainment" Net sites may still have to pay up in some cases, despite the Federal Trade Commission's crackdown on the alleged scheme last month.

The sites, "sexygirls.com," "beavisbutthead.com," and "1adult.com" quietly disconnected visitors from their Internet service providers and rerouted their calls through Moldova, a republic in the former Soviet Union. As a result, unaware consumers in the United States and Canada were billed more than $2 a minute by their long distance providers, charges that collectively add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On February 19, the FTC received a court order to shut down the sites, to which AT&T had alerted them in December. AT&T then helped with the investigation.

However, some consumers say their long distance carriers, including AT&T, are still charging them in full or part for the calls. When consumers call the FTC they are sent back to their carriers for billing questions. But the answers they get are inconsistent, and some are furious while others have given up.

"The AT&T supervisor made a big deal about the charges being incurred through an Internet connection," said Mitch Culver, an AT&T customer who wracked up a $44 bill after surfing the site for 15 minutes on January 28. "She said AT&T was not in the business of forgiving those types of calls. But she acknowledged that AT&T had received quite a few calls about Moldova charges of this nature."

AT&T, which serves 80 million residential customers in the United States, said today that it is dealing with customer inquiries on a case-by-case basis. If customers have a history of disputing charges, for example, the customer service representative has the discretion to not adjust the bill.

Culver says he never disputed charges before. "I could see if I had a track record, but I don't. Nobody wants to be responsible."

AT&T says it blocked all calls to the identified Moldova numbers as of late January, but could not give an exact date. AT&T also insists that is has been proactive and helpful to customers who incurred bills through the scheme.

"Several thousand AT&T customers have called in," John Heath, a spokesman for AT&T said today. "We also called our customers back in December when we saw an unusual number of calls to Moldova."

As for reducing or erasing charges from customers' bills, Heath added: "One of the approaches we'll take is to apply our best international rate instead, which can be up to 50 percent off retroactively. We don't have a blanket policy on this."

Heath said that he would look at Culver's particular case. But there are still other customers disputing the charges with no avail.

Another AT&T customer said when he explained his case, he was told that he still had to pay. Another customer said his charges were reduced from $45 to $23. Both customers declined to be identified.

Sprint says it also has received calls regarding Moldova charges; so has MCI. One MCI customer, who also declined to be identified, said he was told whether he knew it or not, he "made" the calls and had to pay.

"As with any customer inquiry, we handle all of them on a case-by-case basis. We look at the account and account history," MCI spokeswoman Jennifer Adams said today. She had not heard of any customer complaints regarding MCI's reaction to the scheme.

All of the long distance companies said today that they encouraged customers to call regarding any problems with their bills and ask to speak to a supervisor if dissatisfied by a representative's service.

Unsuspecting consumers aren't the only ones who were bilked. AT&T and other carriers are left holding the bag for charges they must pay to a company that routes their calls to Moldova.

Teleglobe has an exclusive contract to handle the telephone routing to Moldova from North America, according to Heath.

"The way the contracts that we have right now read, we are obligated to pay the company," he said.

The FTC said today there are no new developments in its case against Audiotex Connection, which ran the sites. However, in a separate announcement, the commission said that it is reviewing its 900-number rules to determine whether it has been effective in curbing abuses associated with services like Audiotex.

The commission is seeking public comments on the issue of expanding its current rule to cover audio information and entertainment services access by dialing numbers that begin with 900. The rule requires cost disclosure for services and protects consumers' rights to dispute charges.