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NEWS POWER
THE NEWS HELPS SOLVE CONSUMER COMPLAINTS

Q: I received a $16 bill June 17 from National One Telecom, which alleged that I accessed a Web site with a 900-number (pay-per-call) telephone call. There is no company phone number on the bill. They direct you to the Web site nationalone.com to speak to a customer service representative. No one was home at the time of this alleged phone call, my computer was being cleaned at the time and was not able to be used. I was foolish enough to go to the Web site. Once there, I had to download a program to talk to the representative. When I tried to escape from the site, I could not -- without rebooting my computer -- so that I could shut it down.

Along with the bill, are warnings that a collection agency will be put on my case and my credit record will be affected. All of this is pretty scary. I notified the Federal Trade Commission and sent a registered letter July 3 to the company's address in Bedford, N.H., informing them that I would not pay. On July 6, I received my Verizon bill, which included $84 in billings from different companies for Internet calls we didn't make. We contacted Verizon because we have a block on our phone for 900 area codes.

-- Kathy Szakmary, Amherst

A: It certainly sounds like you got walloped with a smattering of erroneous charges in today's complicated web of Internet service billing. Aside from disputing your bills with the Internet service providers in a timely manner, experts recommend that you file a formal complaint with the New York State Attorney General's office. AG spokeswoman Christine Pritchard said it's important that you file a complaint so they can review the situation to see if it's part of a larger problem. In general, the pattern of erroneous Internet service billing has been leading to "a growing scam our office is seeing," Pritchard said. "It is a problem, and it's something consumers should report to our office and we'll try to mediate resolutions."

The latest wrinkle is dubbed "cramming" -- when Internet/telecommunication services are billed through your telephone company. You also did the right thing by contacting Verizon. It's important to question your bills and verify the legitimacy of your charges if you're uncertain of them or have trouble reaching a particular service provider.

We e-mailed National One Telecom for its side of the story. As of press time, we hadn't heard back from them -- other than receiving an e-mail confirming our query was being processed and promising that a customer representative would contact us within 24 hours.

If charges appearing on your phone company bill are not correct, contact a customer service representative to dispute your bill.

"Customers should call the service provider directly, but we'll work with them," said Verizon spokesman Cliff Lee. "Removing it from the bill doesn't automatically take care of it, that's why it's best to contact the service provider directly. But if there's no way you'd subscribe to a service, just call us and let us know."

If Verizon gets complaints from customers, Lee said it will stop billing "for these companies, if it appears unethical or illegal."

To follow up with the AG's office, call (800) 771-7755 or access the Web site at www.oag.state.ny.us to file a formal complaint.

Consumer Notes

To help control the costs of cooling your home, the Federal Trade Commission recommends doing an energy audit to detect waste and gauge the efficiency of your cooling system. Have your central air conditioning system serviced each spring and clean or replace AC and furnace filters once a month, or as needed. For a more detailed list of tips, check out www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov.

Have a consumer problem? Send a letter summarizing your problem to News Power, The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Attention: Karen Robinson, or e-mail newspower@buffnews.com or fax a question to 648-3012. To be considered for publication, readers must fully identify themselves by name and the town in which they live. Clearly explain your problem, and be sure to include a telephone number. Not all questions can be addressed.

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