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AOL Complaints Surface in Me., N.H.

October 26, 1998

NASHUA, N.H. (AP) _ Some America Online users in New Hampshire and Maine have found that getting connected to the Internet can carry an unpleasant surprise _ long-distance telephone bills that were not supposed to exist.

``We had in excess of 20 (complaints) in the past couple of months ... localized around the Nashua area,″ said Walter Maroney, chief of the consumer protection bureau of the New Hampshire attorney general’s office.

Maroney said complaints to his office involve only AOL, the country’s largest online service, with 14 million subscribers. ``I’m not familiar with similar complaints regarding ... other companies. It appears to be limited to America Online,″ he said. ``We are looking into it.″

The problem _ which appears to have bypassed Vermont _ involves people joining America Online for the first time, according to Maine and New Hampshire officials.

New subscribers choose telephone numbers they want their computers to dial when connecting to AOL, usually a local number.

But the software reportedly dials a different, long-distance number sometimes and there’s no way to tell until the telephone bill arrives.

America Online disputed that allegation, but would not comment on the specific Nashua-area complaints.

AOL has said the problem happens when users don’t choose local phone numbers or choose long-distance numbers as backups, which are dialed when the local number is busy.

America Online also has pointed fingers at telephone companies, saying they misroute some calls.

But Maine and New Hampshire officials challenge that claim.

``There’s no way for Bell Atlantic to divert those calls. It’s not a switching problem,″ said Maryann Lutz of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

``It’s not the phone company. It’s solely AOL, their installation disk,″ said Phil Lindley, spokesman for the Maine Public Utilities Commission. ``It has access to AOL’s database of numbers ... but it’s not dialing the right one.″

In Maine, some consumers have complained about phone bills that in one case topped $1,200.

Maine and New Hampshire have only one area code in the entire state. Vermont also is a one-area-code state, but it has gotten few complaints about unexpected long-distance calls, perhaps because Vermont handles in-state long-distance calls differently.

``We haven’t received very many complaints about this. And I’m sure that the reason is that we do have 11-digit dialing,″ said Dina Frankel, director of consumer affairs for the Vermont Department of Public Service.

When area codes started being used up, telephone companies gave states the option of dropping the requirement that in-state long-distance calls be preceded by a 1 and the state area code.

New Hampshire and Maine dropped the requirement, which is why seven digits will dial any number in the state, whether local or long distance.

Vermonters, however, are stuck with having to dial 1 and the state area code to call telephone exchanges outside their local calling areas.

Officials surmise this makes it difficult for software to choose a long-distance number accidentally, and alerts AOL customers to long-distance dialing because they hear four extra beeps from the modem.

Whatever the case, officials say the situation is not only expensive but irritating.

``People get frustrated because they call the phone company, and they say to call America Online, and America Online says to talk to the phone company,″ said Lutz of the PUC.

In Maine, Lindley urged people to check phone bills so they can catch mistakes early.

``Some of these bills have gone on for two or three months before they were noticed,″ he said.

However, he also said the problem reflects the increasing complexity of society, from complicated phone bills to complicated computers.

``AOL is like computers, and computers still aren’t user-friendly. Until computers are as easy to use as the telephone or television, you’re going to have this problem,″ he said.

``My grandma can use the telephone 100 times out of 100,″ he said.

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