*More States May Sue Long-Distance Carriers

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Eight states filed lawsuits last week against long-distance telephone carriers WorldCom, AT&T and Sprint, alleging that the companies used deceptive advertising practices, including telemarketing, that did not fully disclose the rates they charge consumers.


Andrew Ketterer, the Maine attorney general and president of the National Association of Attorneys General, said yesterday that other states have expressed interest in the matter and may file suits of their own during the next few weeks.


Each of the eight states currently involved filed separate lawsuits. California, Missouri, New Jersey and Minnesota filed suits against WorldCom; Illinois sued Sprint; Idaho sued AT&T; Maine sued WorldCom and AT&T; and Connecticut sued all three companies.


Most of the states did not say they were seeking monetary damages, although California said it would seek $20 million in damages.


"Our thing was we just wanted to protect Maine consumers," Ketterer said. "We felt we could do that fairly quickly and expeditiously."


The states argue that when long-distance carriers advertise low per-minute rates, they do not always disclose in a clear and conspicuous manner the additional charges that consumers have to pay. For example, the Connecticut attorney general's office said AT&T's One Rate Seven Cents Plan does not "conspicuously disclose" that customers must also pay a carrier line fee, a universal connectivity charge and a $5.95 fee.


The other states made similar allegations.


"We think MCI [WorldCom] put way too much emphasis on 5 cents a minute every day and glossed over crucial information about how much consumers could be expected to pay for their long distance," said Scott Holste, a spokesman for the Missouri attorney general's office. "We had concerns over their telemarketing as well. We believe there were misrepresentations made during telemarketing calls related to the information that was not fully disclosed to consumers."


Maine's suit also claims that the company's telemarketing calls were deceptive, Ketterer said.


"These calls usually come in at home at an inconvenient time, and they want to tell you how you can save $5, and you can't save $5 anyway," he said.


Ketterer said his office has received 435 complaints from consumers about long-distance advertising since 1997. Some of those complaints came through the Public Utilities Commission, he said.


All three companies declined to comment specifically on the lawsuits, but all three did say they felt their ads were not deceptive.


"It is our opinion that our advertising meets [Federal Communications Commission] guidelines for clarity and accuracy," said Claire Hassett, a spokeswoman for WorldCom, Clinton, MS. "In fact, the FCC adopted very strict new guidelines in January, and our advertising does meet those guidelines."


A spokeswoman for Sprint, Westwood, KS, said the company "stands behind our advertising" and added that the company has not received complaints into its call centers about ambiguity or misleading information in its advertisements.


A spokesman for AT&T, Basking Ridge, NJ, said it was AT&T's policy to be "upfront and forthright" in its advertising.
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