Correcting Telecom Overcharges

Telecommunications networks are faster and smarter than ever, but many carriers still seriously overcharge their customers through incorrect billing.

Telecommunications networks are faster and smarter than ever, but many carriers still seriously overcharge their customers through incorrect billing.

"Conventional wisdom is that 85 percent of bills are incorrect, but our findings are significantly higher," said Ayal Schanzer, vice president at UtiliSave, a New Rochelle, N.Y., company that audits telecommunications and other utility bills. "Id bet that in 95 percent of the cases we find an issue concerning billing errors."

"The last time a client of mine had a correct bill was in 1995," said Jeff Barber, vice president of marketing at Accu-Rate, an El Paso, Texas, auditing firm. "All of the carriers make mistakes virtually all of the time."

Firms such UtiliSave and Accu-Rate make their living tracking down those errors, because businesses do not have the time or the skill to decipher all the tariffs and methods of computing bills. Mistakes in billing can go on for years. Many are apparently simply the result of mistaken clerical entries. Others are caused by carelessness. Not a few come from carriers that deliberately sell users services they do not need or cant use.

Slamming — signing up a company as a customer without approval — is still a problem, said Steve Snouffer, operations manager at Telemanagement, in Cincinnati. He said he still finds clients paying telephone handset rentals on contracts dating back to before divestiture.

For their work, the auditors collect part of the savings, either on a flat percentage of the refunds or sharing in savings their clients realize over time. The savings can be dramatic.

Satchi and Satchi, a big advertising and public relations company, expects to save $50,000 to $100,000 once UtiliSave finishes auditing its local and long-distance voice bills, said Lisa Earle, telecommunications manager at Satchi and Satchi. Next come the data lines and Earle expects the company to see even bigger refunds from that process.

Telecommunications Resources of New York won a refund of $532,000 for Visiting Nurse Service of New York, said Lilli Stein-berg, president of the Nanuet, N.Y., auditing firm. The company also won a $197,500 refund for Tropicana Casino and Resort, in Atlantic City, N.J., she said.

Carolyn Arnold started her auditing firm, CACC, in Boerne, Texas, in 1986, after leaving Southwestern Bell when her job in the billing department was eliminated by divestiture. She believes that most billing mistakes are accidents. Clerks are rushed, tariffs are complex and the variety of services myriad, she said. Clerks often do not know how to compute mileage used to calculate rates, especially on data and Internet access lines, she said.

"I was with Southwestern Bell long enough to know that billing is very complex and it just gets screwed up," Arnold said. "One factor that I found always, the telephone company hardly ever gets under-billed."

CapRock Communications billed Barnard-Doneghan Insurance of Sequin, Texas, $38,000 for call forwarding, caller ID and other services the firm had canceled, said Bob Harloff, IT manager at the agency. He paid Arnold and CACC half of that figure when she won his company a refund. CapRock was later acquired by McLeodUSA when it was close to failure.