Montco woman wins victory over Verizon

Bernice Keebler had a simple complaint: Verizon billed her $4.19 for six "local calls" but wouldn't tell her where she'd called - not unless she got a lawyer and a subpoena.

To Keebler, that stretched the bounds of fair dealing beyond the breaking point.  "I think I have the right to know what I am paying for," she told me in a column about her case last month.  Keebler likened the experience to getting a tab at a restaurant with a bottom line for "food," but no details to review or question.

A Public Utility Commission judge agreed. In a decision released today by the PUC's communications office, Administrative Law Judge Mary D. Long proposed fining Verizon Pennsylvania $1,000 for failing in its duty to provide "adequate customer service":

It is a basic matter of fair business practice that a consumer should be able to contact a utility about a charge on a bill and learn what the charge is for and learn that the charge was correctly applied. The only verification that Verizon’s witness could offer that a charge like Mrs. Keebler’s $4.19 measured use charge was accurate and billed correctly was her faith in the accuracy of Verizon’s computer system. The only way that Verizon would offer any information about a past charge in response to a consumer inquiry was to require that customer to hire a lawyer and subpoena their own usage information. By no reasonable standard could this be considered reasonable customer service.

You can find the whole ruling by clicking here - you'll have to download a Word document.  The PUC itself will make the final ruling on the case, in which Long also held that Keebler hadn't met the burden of proof to overturn a key provision of Verizon's 1999 tariff that Keebler also found outrageous: The local phone company is allowed to charge her a $40 one-time fee, plus 2 cents per call, if she wants an itemized monthly bill - even in electronic form - for calls that are too close to be classified as "regional toll calls" but too far to be within her flat-rate monthly service terriitory.

Of course, Keebler is a consumer, and proving such a point is beyond her reasonable reach.  Long says Verizon argued that Keebler would have had to provide "cost studies or expert testimony which would support a contention that the rate in the tariff is unreasonable or that detailed billing of residential measured use calls is feasible."

A dozen years of technological and marketplace development have shown that itemizing hundreds or even thousands of calls per bill is feasible - wireless companies do it all the time, as Keebler noted in her complaint.

But she's won a real victory on her broader point: It's simply not reasonable for a company to send you a bill, for any amount, and refuse to tell you clearly what you're being charged for - unless you get a lawyer and a subpoena.