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Consumer Federation of America
Similar competition may also develop for the local phone service currently offered by one company in your community. How quickly this local competition emerges depends upon several factors -- including the rules laid down by your home state to manage phone service and the decisions made by individual companies on how and where to seek customers. Local competition holds the promise of lower rates and greater choice for consumers.
Companies you recognize will be offering a broader range of services, while companies unfamiliar to you may solicit you for their services also. With dozens of companies offering local service, long distance or both, consumers need to make sure they are getting the best deal.
The best way to save money on long distance service may be to enroll in a calling plan that fits your habits. Consider the following:
A close look at your monthly bill will provide you with the information needed when choosing the right calling plan. You should request written material from companies and compare their rates to your calling patterns and make sure you fully review the details of a plan before you sign on.
The full picture of local service has yet to be completed, especially as each of the 50 states determines how it will oversee the new open market.
As the local market changes, be wary of offers that commit you for a set period of time to your current local company or a new provider. While their discounts or rates may sound like a good deal, such practices can lock out competitors and limit consumer choice.
For the first time in a long time, one company will be able to offer both local and long distance services to consumers. This ability to choose is convenient and can save you money. You may, however, save more money by selecting a separate company for local and long distance service. The key is: shop around among companies offering various local and long distance plans and shop smart.
This brochure warns you about some deceptive techniques used to sell telephone service. It can help you avoid marketing abuses today and alert you to tactics that may be used as competition for local service develops.
You have the right to choose your primary long distance company and to change companies whenever you wish. Over the past few years, the number one consumer complaint in the telephone market involves a practice called "slamming" -- when your chosen long distance telephone service provider is switched to another company without your consent or knowledge. This practice may involve deceptive marketing tactics or outright fraud, and it could affect your local service. If your service is slammed, you could lose important service features, get lower quality service or be charged higher rates for your long distance calls.
The Federal Communications Commission´s (FCC) rules and policies and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibit slamming. The FCC´s rules require a long distance company to obtain your authorization before changing your long distance service provider. Your state may have similar regulations.
Your service may be switched through no fault of your own, or you could be misled by marketing techniques used to sign up customers for telephone service. To avoid this, you should carefully read all promotional material and all forms before signing, including the sweepstakes, contests, promotional checks or other marketing devices some companies use to induce consumers to authorize a carrier switch.
FCC rules require that the forms provided by long distance companies to change long distance service be clear and not confusing, signed and dated by the consumer subscribing to the telephone line involved with the change, and easily separated from the promotional material. For instance, the form could be printed on a piece of paper that does not include any promotional material. Or, the form and promotional material could be included on a sheet of paper with perforations so that the form can be easily torn off and separated from the promotional material.
Closely examine checks from telephone companies offering money to switch to their service. While it may be wise to take advantage of special offers, make sure you are signing up for the plan that saves you the most money. Some companies may not automatically put you on their best savings plan and you could end up paying more than the value of the check in higher monthly rates. In some cases, customers need to mark a box on the back of the check to receive the discounted service.
A check must clearly state that the customer is authorizing a change in service -- but read the entire offer. Look for a full explanation of the changes you are authorizing next to the signature line on the back of the check. If you do cash the check, call the customer service number provided soon after to make sure you have been placed in the best discount program for you.
Carefully examine telephone or mail solicitations that offer big savings if you switch your service to a new company. These claims usually compare only the highest rates of well-known carriers. A calling plan with your current company may have lower rates and fewer restrictions than the program being offered.
In any case, ask more questions and find out about any hidden costs or restrictions associated with discount plans. Do the discounts offered fit your calling habits? Will the company provide other services you need, such as 24-hour customer service and reliable billing? If you´re not getting straight answers, you probably have reason to be suspicious.
Pay close attention to mailings offering big savings if you use a so-called discount code of five digits at the start of each call you make. These offers promise not to change your long distance company, which is technically true. Dialing the five digits before the number that you are calling will connect you to a long distance company that most likely is not your primary long distance company. This company´s rates may be higher or lower than the rates charged by your long distance company.
Watch for special offers that provide certain services at a discount or for free. These 'bargains' often last for only a few weeks or months, then automatically continue at a much higher rate unless you specifically request cancellation. Also, remember that your local telephone company charges a fee to change your long distance company. Some long distance companies will pay this charge if you switch to their service.
Package deals can offer a good value as many companies begin to offer deep discounts to customers who buy all their telecommunications services from one source (some may include Internet, cable TV or pager services, for instance, on top of local and long distance). Companies offer these deals because it helps them retain customers, and consumers like them because it simplifies the billing process. It could, however, be cheaper to buy separately only the services needed, rather than an entire package. Make sure you purchase what you truly want and can afford.
Your current local telephone company may tell you that you can avoid negative marketing tactics by signing up for a program that requires you to directly contact your local telephone company to change carriers. Some local companies require written permission. While written permission will help protect you from slamming, it can make it more difficult to take advantage of new competitors offering lower prices or better service.
Depending on their per-minute rate, prepaid calling cards can save money on long distance calls of short duration. If you use prepaid cards for calls from home or for local calls, however, you may pay more than if you used your regular telephone service. In addition, some companies that sold consumers calling cards have gone out of business before the customer can use the full value of the card. Only prepay if you know and trust the company making an offer.
Be aware that pay phones may be connected to operator service companies charging high rates and added fees. If you make calls away from home, consider getting a calling card that allows you access to the company of your choice by dialing its access code -- usually an 800 number. Though illegal, some pay phones are set up to block your ability to reach your company. If you have trouble reaching your carrier or using a calling card, try to find another nearby pay phone.
If you suspect your long distance carrier has been changed without your permission, call 1-700-555-4141 from your home phone and a recording will state which carrier is connected to your home line. Its name will also be listed on your bill, which you should examine every month.
If your telephone company is switched improperly, call your local telephone company and your original carrier and arrange to be switched back immediately at no charge. You have the right to demand a refund if you were charged a switching fee or were billed at higher rates than your own carrier´s rates.
For advice about a telephone-related problem, contact your state or local consumer protection agency, or your state Attorney General or public utilities commission. If necessary, they may take a complaint from you or refer you to another agency that can help you. Send a copy of your grievance to the company so they know you are dissatisfied.
If you are unsuccessful in resolving problems about interstate or international long distance service with the company, you can write to the Federal Communications Commission. Your complaint should include your name; address; the telephone number or numbers involved with the complaint; a telephone number where you can be reached during business hours; the names of your local and long distance companies and, where appropriate, the company that slammed you; and copies of bills or other documents related to your complaint. Be aware that complaints can take several months to process.
FCC ---- Common Carrier Bureau
Mail Stop 1600A2
Washington, DC 20554
This pamphlet has been prepared by:
Consumer Federation of America
This pamphlet has been reviewed by the
Federal Communications Commission, Common Carrier Bureau.
It has been endorsed by:
For individual copies, write to:
Making the Best Call
Pueblo, CO 81009
Printing donated by MCI Communications Corp.
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