WASHINGTON -- The Senate has voted unanimously to require a telephone company to get oral or written verification from consumers before switching their long-distance service.
The bill passed Tuesday on a 99-0 vote also would require the Federal Communications Commission to speed up procedures for resolving complaints about the practice customers having their long-distance service switched without permission -- or slamming, as it is known.
The new legislation says that unless the FCC finds mitigating circumstances, violators of verification procedures are to face fines of not less than $40,000 for first offenses and not less than $150,000 for each subsequent offense.
Telephone companies would have 15 days to inform consumers of a change of service and would have to explain how to file a complaint with the FCC if a consumer believes there has been an illegal switch.
Consumers now have more than 500 telephone companies to choose from, but this has given rise to cutthroat competition, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
"Two consumers are slammed every minute of every day, which makes slamming far and away the most pervasive consumer problem in telecommunications today," McCain said.
Complaints to the FCC about slamming rose from fewer than 2,000 in 1993 to more than 20,000 last year. Victims often end up paying higher rates -- in some cases 10 times as much as low-cost providers -- and don't know they have been switched until they get the higher bill.
Sens. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., attached an amendment to the legislation requiring senders of junk e-mail to identify themselves and to stop sending messages to those who ask to be taken off their list.
The bill, S-1618, must still be considered by the House.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., did not vote.