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ISPs in New York must warn of hidden long-distance fees

Dial-up customers, beware: the phone numbers you use to access the Net may carry long distance fees, even if they seem to have a local area code. (Sometimes called "regional toll calls," they often occur in area codes that span a wide geographic area.) That's the type of warning Internet service providers must "post prominently" under a New York law recently signed by Gov. George Pataki. Failure to comply will result in a "deceptive practice" charge.

Complaints about the unexpected long-distance charges had been pouring into the state attorney general's office each year, according to a memo accompanying the bill. A recent example in Rochester involved approximately 700 customers slapped with more than $200,000 in such fees over an eight-month period. The most common seemingly "local" area codes that can actually present long-distance fees ranging from 8 to 12 cents per minute are 716 (Rochester and western New York), 518 (Albany and northeastern New York), and 315 (central New York).

The new law, effective 90 days after the governor's late July sign-off, makes mandatory a once-voluntary practice encouraged by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and adopted in 2001 by 25 ISPs. But it will still be up to consumers to act on the warnings and be savvy about seeking access numbers local to their area.