Spitzer Announces Initiative To Help Consumers Avoid Hidden Long-distance Charges For Access To Internet

Attorney General Spitzer announced today that his office has secured assurances from 25 New York-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that they will inform their customers how to avoid costly long-distance charges for use of the Internet. Spitzer's office began the initiative after receiving hundreds of complaints from consumers who had unknowingly incurred long-distance charges after selecting a non-local telephone number to access the Internet.

When Internet service subscribers purchase dial-up access, they must also select an access number, usually from a large selection of telephone numbers that their ISP has leased for use. Most ISP's warn their subscribers that to avoid excessive charges on their telephone bill, they should select a "local" number from the list, and many also urge subscribers to contact their local telephone carrier to determine whether a number is local.

However, Spitzer said that in reality, many consumers, unaware of the subtleties of telephone billing, mistakenly presume that telephone numbers in their own area code or geographic region are billed as "local" charges. They only realize the error when they receive expensive telephone bills and find out that what appeared to be a "local" telephone number was actually billed as a regional toll call, often costing in the range of ten cents per minute. Depending on how many hours per month consumers use the Internet, their telephone bills can reach hundreds, and even thousands of dollars.

"The Internet has become a revolutionary force for good, but as with anything new unexpected and unintended problems can arise," Spitzer said. "It is essential that government and industry work together wherever possible to better inform consumers of how to avoid common pitfalls and excessive charges when they join the Internet age. This effort by my office will benefit everyone involved - informed consumers will be able to choose an appropriate local dial-up number and by doing so this should help the ISPs reduce consumer dissatisfaction, complaints, and potential liability."

Spitzer said that to date, 25 New York-based ISPs have voluntarily agreed to place the warning on their access number selection pages, either verbatim or in modified form, and that many already have done so. He said that he is hopeful that other ISPs, whether based in New York or outside the state, will follow this lead.

Specifically, the warning states:

WARNING: WE DO NOT WARRANT OR PROMISE THAT ANY OF THE FOLLOWING NUMBERS ARE LOCAL TO YOU. IN PARTICULAR, WE URGE YOU TO NOTE THAT EVEN AN ACCESS NUMBER THAT SHARES YOUR AREA CODE OR APPEARS TO BE LOCATED IN YOUR GENERAL GEOGRAPHIC REGION MAY NOT NECESSARILY BE A LOCAL NUMBER TO YOU. SUBSTANTIAL TOLL TELEPHONE CHARGES MAY APPLY TO NUMBERS THAT YOU DO NOT VERIFY AS LOCAL TO YOUR INDIVIDUAL AREA OR CALLING PLAN.

YOUR LOCAL TELEPHONE COMPANY CAN TELL YOU WHETHER ANY OF THE BELOW TELEPHONE NUMBERS ARE IN FACT LOCAL TO YOU. WE URGE YOU TO CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL TELEPHONE COMPANY BEFORE SELECTING A NUMBER FROM BELOW.

Spitzer pointed out that while his office is charged with prosecuting companies that violate consumer laws, the office often works cooperatively with companies to promote and create industry standards, especially in developing areas such as the Internet.

A list of the ISPs that have agreed to use the Attorney General's warning statement and other Internet-related tips for consumers can be found at the AG's web site, www.ag.ny.gov.

The initiative was led by Kenneth Dreifach, Chief of Spitzer's Internet Bureau.

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