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A PIC FREEZE CAN KEEP YOUR PHONE SERVICE FROM BEING SWITCHED WITHOUT YOUR OK

Second of two parts on telephone fraud
Did you know that you could protect yourself against telephone slamming by freezing your telephone lines? It's one of the industry's best-kept secrets, and for a reason. Long-distance companies hate it. Freezes make it harder for them to sell their service.

You're slammed when your phone service is switched to another company without your permission. Slammers hope that you won't notice, and pay the slammer unawares.

A handful of small long-distance companies have the highest rate of slamming complaints. But the majors -- AT&T, MCI and Sprint -- may slam you, too. As competition opens for local calls, slamming also is occurring there.

AT&T has temporarily quit using independent sales agents at community events, because these vendors generate so many customer complaints. That's probably true of agents for other phone companies, too, which suggests that you should stay away from them.

Normally, you can change phone carriers without lifting a finger. A new carrier will solicit you, by phone or mail. If you say yes, that carrier will arrange the switch.

Slammers, however, don't bother getting your permission, or get your permission under false pretenses. For example, you might enter a sweepstakes, accept a "prize" or buy a discounted vacation package, without noticing that the sign-up form switches you to a new phone company.

In other cases, telemarketers might ask if you'd like to pay less for your phone service. If you say yes, they might treat it as a sale, regardless of how the rest of the conversation goes. Worse, the telemarketer may be lying. The new company may cost you more.

Businesses are also being slammed, by telemarketers who call low-level employees and ask questions designed to elicit a yes.

A shady marketer can even get your name, address and phone number out of the phone book, and switch you without bothering to call. The new carrier has to verify your order, perhaps by sending you a postcard, saying "welcome to XXX phone company." But you might not notice and throw the card out.

To prevent slamming, call your local phone company. Most of them offer free slamming protection. Your line will be frozen (known as a Primary Interexchange Carrier freeze, or PIC freeze for short). No change can then be made unless you call your local company and say it's OK.

The long-distance companies hate to have this publicized. If they sell you their service, they want to be able to make the change automatically.

Ameritech, the regional phone company based in Chicago, put out a mailing a couple of years ago, telling consumers about slamming protection. They did it just when Ameritech was getting some competition. The competitors screamed and Ameritech retreated.

"Now we're sensitive. We occasionally do a bill stuffer about it," spokesperson Bill Pendergast told my associate, Kate O'Brien Ahlers.

When you're slammed, you face the hassle of straightening things out. You also lose any premiums that your authorized carrier would have paid, such as frequent-flier miles.

"Consumers should review their phone bill every month," says William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. "Read it the way you read credit-card statements."

The bill should show the logo of your regular carrier. If you get a bill from an unauthorized carrier, call your local phone company. It should restore your original service and cancel the switching fee (about $5).

At present, you have to pay the slammer for the calls you made on its line, so slammers can prosper even if they get caught. But you don't have to pay any more than your preferred long-distance company would have charged.

The easiest way to fix the bill is to call your local phone company, which might handle it for you -- including getting any refunds you are owed. Or you could call the slammer yourself.

The FCC tries to minimize slamming, as do some states. But nationally, it's on the rise.

For this reason, the FCC will tighten its rules -- probably this spring, says Kennard. One proposal would greatly reduce the financial incentive for slamming. Consumers wouldn't have to pay slammers anything for the service they received. Also under consideration: limiting those "welcome" postcards and restoring perks like frequent-flier miles.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., thinks the FCC's rules may not be tough enough. He recently introduced a bill that would, among other things, force telephone marketers to get clearer evidence of your consent. Until then, there's always the freeze.

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