The letter from MCI Communications Corp. that arrived at the Annandale, Va., home of William F. McDonald in August thanked him for choosing MCI as his long-distance telephone company. Later, while placing a call, he heard a recorded voice saying, "Thank you for using MCI."
But McDonald says he had never chosen MCI. Rather, MCI had chosen him.
Regional telephone company Bell Atlantic Corp. predicts that about 80,000 of its customers in the mid-Atlantic states will complain this year of being hit by this growing form of consumer fraud. It is known as "slamming," the unauthorized switch of a customer's long-distance company. Slamming amounts to nothing less than pirating long-distance customers.
Prompted by a barrage of consumer complaints, regulators and legislators are looking for ways to rein in this unwelcome side-effect of intense competition in the $50-billion-a-year long-distance market. But so far they have made no decisions.
Bell Atlantic got 18,000 complaints from customers in 1988, 37,000 in 1989, and this year the figure had reached 45,373 by the end of August _ on its way to 80,000, the company estimates.
It is Bell Atlantic and other local phone companies like GTE, carrying out the instructions of the various long-distance companies, that push the buttons that change a phone customer from one service to another.
Under federal regulations, local phone companies make those switches solely on the say-so of the long-distance companies, without benefit of either written or oral instruction from the customers.
All the major long-distance companies have been accused of slamming, including market-leader American Telephone & Telegraph Co. But Federal Communications Commission official Richard Firestone told a House panel last week that MCI, the aggressive Washington-based company that is the nation's second-largest long-distance carrier, is the most frequently identified offender.
Louise Simmons, a public school teacher in Harrison County, W.Va., told the subcommittee she got calls from MCI telemarketers once every two months for two to three years asking her to switch. She said no to every call, she testified. But last February, she found out she had been switched to MCI.
"I wish telemarketing would be abolished altogether," she said. "It invades my time. I'd like to choose whom I do business with."
Long-distance companies deny deliberately engaging in slamming.
"It's a terrible business," said MCI executive vice president Eugene Eidenberg. "It's not MCI's policy nor in our business interest for customers to be moved without their permission. .
. There is not enough short-term revenues to justify the practice."
But long-distance companies concede that slamming by their sales representatives does happen. Controls are not perfect, they say, and clerical errors can occur. An MCI spokesman says that it is now most frequently named in complaints because it makes more marketing calls than anyone else. A US Sprint official calls that company's record "pretty good."
Many analysts have blamed slamming on salespeople who work on commission or are for other reasons trying to inflate their performance records. MCI says marketing groups may have quotas they are supposed to fill.
James R. Young, a Bell Atlantic vice president, said slamming usually occurs after an unsuccessful attempt by a telemarketer to persuade a customer to change his long-distance company.
"Even if the customer rejects the telemarketing pitch," Young said, "his next phone bill may show that his long-distance company was changed anyway."