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Pa. orders inquiry into Verizon’s 411 calls

If Ernestine the Telephone Operator were still in charge, this probably wouldn't have happened.

If Ernestine the Telephone Operator were still in charge, this probably wouldn't have happened.

In 2006, Aretta Greenawald noticed something strange on her Verizon telephone bills: fees for directory-assistance calls she was sure she hadn't made.

The charges were small - $1.25 per call - but the bills added up. Month after month, Greenawald asked to have them reversed. Finally, in 2008, she turned to the state Public Utility Commission.

"I want Verizon to stop billing me for calls I didn't make," the Elizabeth, Pa., woman said in her complaint.

Last week, Greenawald's small dispute grew in significance, when the commission affirmed an administrative law judge's decision to dismiss her complaint but ordered a broader inquiry.

The reason: So far this year, the state agency says, it has received at least 196 similar complaints from Verizon customers who say they have been billed for directory-assistance calls they never made.

"There just seemed to be too many cases being filed," commission vice chairman Tyrone J. Christy said in an interview. "We need to dig in and figure out the root cause of the problem."

Christy said the disputed charges ranged from $1.25 to $250 per customer.

Verizon spokesman Richard Young said that in the week since the PUC's order, the company has already examined about 20 percent of the other complaints and is confident that each was unfounded. Each time, he said, the disputed directory call had been followed by a call to the number requested.

"We are more than happy to work with the commission on this issue, but we are fully confident in the accuracy of our systems," Young said.

He suggested that the consumers who filed complaints may not have adjusted to paying for directory assistance - a service that many phone users, especially younger ones, now get for free via the Internet.

Until May 2007, Verizon's Pennsylvania customers got one free directory call per month, and paid $1.25 after that. Over the last 2 1/2 years, Verizon has dropped the free call and raised the price to $1.50.

"There is apparently confusion among consumers who may have mistakenly believed they were getting free directory assistance," Young said.

For Greenawald's complaints, there was apparently no easy answer, despite Verizon's effort to find an explanation for the mystery charges.

The judge's ruling said Verizon repeatedly tried to address the problem. Technicians tested to see whether wires were crossed or whether somebody else might be tapping into her line. The company even reimbursed her $75 to replace a portable phone, in case the calls were being inadvertently made by a neighbor.

Greenawald, reached by phone today at her home near Pittsburgh, said that she was satisfied with her complaint's outcome despite the judge's conclusion that she had not met the burden of proof required for him to rule against Verizon.

"Verizon treated me very well," she said. "They tried everything for me. They couldn't have been nicer."

The judge said that Verizon had refunded $51 of a total $70 in charges that Greenawald disputed between September 2006 and February 2009, when she transferred her phone service to Comcast.

Greenawald declined to say whether she had received any additional compensation for her troubles. "All I can tell you is that it was taken care of," she said.

She suggested that some other people's calls might have been caused by what's known as the "fat finger" problem. Callers in her 412 area code might have been accidentally hitting the "1" key twice in a row, and dialing 411 by mistake, she speculated.

Christy said that might explain some of the complaints, but not enough to satisfy his concerns. Only about a third of the complaints were from the 412 area code, he said.

Greenawald was surprised to learn that the PUC had received so many similar complaints.

"Back then, I was understanding that I was the only person," she said.