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Bill ensures callers get all of their prepaid phone minutes

Date: 3/12/2008 12:05:37 AM

Maine—An unwelcome surprise for Maine phone card customers who found that they had less time left than they thought they had paid for has led to legislation thats being touted as the first of its kind in the country.

more stories like thisA bill thats up for an initial House vote as early as Wednesday seeks to ensure that customers get all of the minutes they signed up for when they bought their cards. It also would require providers to give notice of planned rate increases to prepaid calling service customers before rates go up.

The bill also bars providers from increasing rates until the service is consumed.

"To my surprise, Maine is the first state we can trace ... to do this," said the sponsor, Rep. Herbert Adams.

The Portland Democrats bill has the solid support of the Utilities and Energy Committee, which enhances its chances of passage when it reaches the House and Senate. It also drew support of major phone card providers in the state and encountered no opposition at its Feb. 26 hearing.

The issue came up last year, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission received complaints from a number of phone card holders who thought they had 1,000 minutes but were surprised to learn they only had about 300 left, said Adams.

The reason for the sudden reduction was an increase in AT&Ts instate phone rates, according to Maine Public Advocate Richard Davies. The higher rates resulted in less time that customers thought they had. Customers complained that they had received no notice of the sudden rate hike, Davies said in testimony to the utilities committee.

The public advocate said that one of Maines most popular prepaid calling services is AT&Ts card marketed by Sams Club.

"These cards are the default longdistance service for elders on fixed incomes and many Mainers who cannot afford monthly longdistance providers on their phone bills," said Adams.

Private consumers were not the only ones who were hit with a sudden loss of minutes. Adams said a number of legislators who are issued phone cards for their state duties also found that their minutes has dipped suddenly.

"State government got surprised and I was one of them," said Adams.

Both the PUC and the Office of the Public Advocate testified in support of Adams bill.

Essentially, the bill would ensure that customers "know and get what they pay for," the PUC said in prepared testimony. The commission said the legislation seeks to codify an agreement that was put in place after the issue arose about a year ago.

Davies said the bill "addresses potential unfair and abusive practices by providers of prepaid telephone services

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