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Law looks at toll-free access numbers

New York's attorney general charges that America Online is "confusing" customers with a toll-free 800 access number that costs $6 an hour.

The New York state attorney general is charging that America Online (AOL) is "confusing" customers with a toll-free 800 access number that actually costs $6 an hour.

Joe Mahoney, a spokesman for New York's attorney general Dennis Vacco, said his office is investigating the issue after getting dozens of complaints from customers who were being billed for an access number they assumed was free.

"From our point of view, AOL is providing consumers with inadequate notice about the charges," Mahoney said.

Jack Norris, a spokesman for the Florida attorney general's office, said his office will also look into the complaints. "I'm concerned that people have to use it. Why shouldn't they have a non-chargeable access number?"

These two attorneys general were instrumental in recently pressuring AOL to give refunds to customers locked out the service by constant busy signals. While that settlement was widely viewed as a victory for consumers and their legal advocates, this new issue may prove a little foggier.

AOL and other ISPs create 800 numbers for customers who aren't within range of a local PoP. This might include rural users or those who are traveling.

AOL clearly discloses online that people who dial in through its 800 and 888 access lines will be charged ten cents a minute or $6 an hour on top of whatever monthly and hourly fees they already pay for service.

"This 800 number has been in place for almost two years. Everywhere this number appears on our service, it says that it's a surcharge number," AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg said.

The problem is that many people don't read this material. Instead, they obtain the numbers from friends, online newsgroups, or other sources and make the natural assumption that dialing an 800 or 888 number is free.

Technically, the telephone call itself is free since it doesn't show up on the customer's phone bill. AOL chooses to pass along the cost of running the toll-free number, however, and adds the charge to its customers' access bills.

This practice has lead to more than one stunned customer confronted with a shockingly high bill, Mahoney said. The New York Times reported today that one woman was confronted with a $541.65 monthly bill after mistaking the 800 number for a free line.

"The problem here is it's confusing for consumers who of course associate an 800 number with toll-free service," Mahoney added. "This is not a charge that's being assessed by the telephone companies. It's not on the phone bill."

While the numbers have been available for a long time, the problem has increased recently because many people have been using the phone numbers as an end run around AOL's busy network. The tactic has clearly backfired for some now faced with massive service bills.

Goldberg said that AOL deals with customers who want refunds on a case-by-case basis and this issue is no different. "If people miss the surcharge information, we will work with our customers who request refunds," she said.

But that doesn't mean AOL is guaranteeing any refunds. "The number of refunds requested have been minimal," said Goldberg. She did not have precise numbers but AOL has received about 600 complaints about the issue each month for the past few months, she said.

This is far from the first time that someone's complained about access problems associated with the world's largest online service. Ever since AOL started offering unlimited access for a flat fee, its system has been overwhelmed with demand, prompting attorneys general from more than 40 states as well as customers around the country to file complaints against AOL.

The company has settled with the attorneys general and yesterday reached a class-action lawsuit settlement in which it agreed to refund members up to four months of fees for the access problems they've been having.

AOL's system has been much easier to access lately, as AOL has added modems for the increased demand, Mahoney acknowledged.

AOL has added 75,000 of its own modems since January 1, bringing the total number of modems on its own private network, AOLnet, to 275,000. There are tens of thousands of other modems that also can be used to access AOL's service through SprintNet and its temporary network, but Goldberg did not provide exact numbers.