AT&T; Corp. on Tuesday came out swinging against the same marketing tactics it's increasingly accused of: switching phone customers' long-distance service without their permission.
The nation's largest long-distance company, blaming outside sellers of its phone service for the growing "slamming" problem, said it would curtail its use of outside sales agents, place restrictions on resellers and start a phone hotline to answer customer complaints.
Although AT&T; touted its "bold new initiatives" as promising to "eradicate slamming," the company remains opposed to a proposal federal regulators are considering: that slamming victims be exempt from having to pay long-distance phone charges incurred while an unauthorized switch was in effect.
"We think putting in an incentive for free service will unnecessarily enter another element" into the problem, said Jack McMaster, AT&T; vice president of consumer marketing. Instead, AT&T; favors compensating consumers whose service was switched without their knowledge, for the difference between more expensive and cheaper long-distance rates.
AT&T;'s anti-slamming plan won cautious praise from consumer groups. The problem has become more widespread in recent years as competition among carriers has intensified. The Federal Communications Commission recorded 20,000 slamming complaints last year, up from 16,000 in 1996.
At&T; also urged the FCC, the nation's telecommunications regulator, to require that an independent third party verify that a customer has indeed requested a change in service. AT&T; also urged the agency to adopt rules that would customer have been slammed and that would penalize the responsible carriers $1,000 for each slamming incident.
"All of these sound like positive efforts to me," said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Consumers Union consumer group in Washington.
The FCC expects to decide on its stricter proposals within the next several months.