WASHINGTON -- Sheila Weiss says she almost fainted when she suddenly started receiving bills from MCI for long-distance calls at a rate roughly seven times higher than she expected through the company's deeply discounted "dialaround" service.
Weiss, of Langhorne, Pa., complained to federal regulators and her local phone company, Bell Atlantic, which does billing for MCI, and she managed to avoid paying the high rates.
But for those who might not have realized they were overcharged, help is on the way.
An agreement Monday between MCI Communications Corp. and the Federal Communications Commission will provide credits to callers who used MCI's dialaround service, now called 10-10-321 but got billed at the company's highest rate.
The credits will be provided regardless of whether a person noticed the mistake or complained, the agency said. The FCC did not estimate how much money is at stake.
Under the agreement MCI will work with Bell Atlantic to identify which customers were affected by the glitch and will be receive a credit, the FCC said.
A technical glitch in new switching equipment caused some of the dialaround calls to be billed at MCI's highest rate. The FCC, however, did not make a determination of whether MCI was at fault.
MCI's dialaround service is operated through its subsidiary, TelecomUSA.
Callers don't have to switch from their preferred long-distance carrier to use a dialaround long-distance service, which advertises cheap rates. Instead, they just begin dialing the access code to make long-distance calls. TelecomUSA advertises rates at roughly a 50 percent discount.
For several months, Weiss said TelecomUSA charged her between 6 cents and 7 cents a minute, depending on where she called. "Then one month when I got my bill I almost fainted when I opened it up because instead of spending $25 a month it was almost $100," she remembers.
In one bill submitted to the FCC, MCI charged Weiss $85.62 -- an average of 50 cents a minute -- for long-distance calls totaling 170 minutes. Weiss estimates that she was overbilled by more than $200 over a three-month period.
Some people who used MCI's dialaround service between October 1997 and June of this year also could have been overcharged, the FCC said. The service had been called 10-321.
During that period, the switch didn't work properly and instead of routing calls to the dialaround service, they went to MCI, where they were billed at the highest rate because the callers were not listed in MCI's billing data base.
Both MCI and Bell Atlantic said they have been recalculating bills at the lower rate and crediting the difference for customers who have complained about being overcharged, the FCC said.
But the FCC said it's possible that some people may not have realized that they were overcharged and that's why the commission decided to take this particular action.
Weiss said she discussed the charges with MCI and TelecomUSA and didn't get a clear reason why the problem occurred, adding that she didn't get help until Bell Atlantic intervened at her request, recalculated the contested rate and billed her for the difference.
"I was so shocked that I looked at the whole bill," Weiss recalled. "But probably a lot of people paid it and didn't even realize," she said.