In the Press

Pac Bell hides voice-mail fees, lawsuit alleges

August 12, 1998 | San Francisco Examiner

By Seth Rosenfeld

Pacific Bell allegedly rung up millions of dollars in unfair billings by charging hundreds of thousands of customers a hidden fee for every message on their voice-mail service, a lawsuit says.

The class-action complaint, filed Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court, claims Pac Bell deceptively advertises the voice-mail service it sells small-business customers by failing to explain that they are charged the price of a local call each time they get a message.

The local charges are disguised on the bill, the suit says, because they are not listed under voice-mail services but merged with regular local calls.

“There’s a hidden charge here,” said Terry Gross, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in bringing class-action suits. “Pac Bell has led customers to believe there is one all-inclusive charge for the voice-mail service, hiding the fact that there is a per-call charge for each message received.”

Gross said the average business customer easily could be overcharged hundreds of dollars a year in such costs.

Paul Cohen, a Pacific Bell spokesman, said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment on it. He said Pac Bell’s Voice Mail service has about 500,000 customers statewide, and “It’s one of our hottest-selling products.”

The service is marketed at $21.95 per month. It is separate from Pac Bell’s Message Center, a voice-mail service sold to home consumers.

The suit accuses San Francisco-based Pacific Bell of engaging in false advertising, unfair competition and violations of consumer protection laws.

The class action was brought by three plaintiffs – from Berkeley, Oakland and San Diego – who filed it on behalf of all “similarly situated” Pac Bell Voice Mail customers.

The complaint asks the court to bar Pac Bell from engaging in the allegedly improper advertising practices and to order the firm to repay any hidden charges.

Telephone companies around the country recently have come under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission to stem unauthorized billings, a practice known as cramming.

In most of these cases, however, the issue was not phone-company charges but ones from third parties – such as Internet access firms – that are included on the phone bill.

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