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FCC adopts new anti-slamming rules

The commission adopts a new set of consumer-friendly rules aimed at stamping out the practice of changing a telephone customer's long distance company without permission.

The Federal Communications Commission adopted a new set of consumer-friendly rules today aimed at stamping out the practice of slamming, or changing a telephone customer's long distance company without permission.

The practice has rocketed to the top of consumer telephone service complaints in past years, becoming a top priority of regulators and legislators in Washington. The FCC receives more than 20,000 slamming complaints a year, staffers say.

Under the commission's new rules, consumers who have been switched without giving their permission will not have to pay the offending company any long distance charges for 30 days. If customers still aren't switched back to their original service provider after that time, they would be able to pay their old carrier--at their old rates--for the switched service.

The commission also laid down new rules that will make it more difficult for slammers to change a customer's service from the outset.

In order to switch a customer legally, companies now must have either a written letter authorizing the change, third party verification of the request, or have the customer contact a toll-free number on their own.

AT&T, which is the largest provider of long distance service in the country, welcomed the news. But officials said they still would like to see the commission or other policymakers go even farther.

"We think what the commission did is absolutely the right thing to do," said AT&T spokesman Wayne Jackson. "It's a step in the right direction. But next, we need to change the structure of the industry that allows slamming to happen."

In order to stamp out practices like slamming entirely, all changes to a customers' long distance service should be channeled though a third-party service, as well as simply being verified by a third party, Jackson said.

AT&T and the other large providers have paid close attention to the issue, as the Baby Bells gear up to enter the long distance market, creating formidable new competitors on the horizon for the long distance companies.

The FCC's new rules will go into effect next March. The action comes one day after the commission levied a $1.2 million fine against a New Jersey company accused of slamming customers in several states.