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Southern Bell to repay customers

Southern Bell and prosecutors settled a dispute over improper billing practices Friday by announcing a $15.2-million refund program.

The settlement means no criminal charges will be brought against Southern Bell for 2-year-old allegations of fraud. The charges involve sale of optional telephone services customers never ordered, intentional overbilling and failure to pay required rebates for phone outages longer than 24 hours.

Under the agreement, Southern Bell will give refunds and credits to 900,000 of its 3.8-million Florida customers. They include:

Refunds of $74.01 to 141,867 customers involved in a "network sales" program that prosecutors say involved overbilling by people who were supposed to be installing and repairing telephones. Most of those customers already have received a partial refund. Southern Bell's total cost: $10.5-million.

Refunds of $595.52 to 2,816 customers who were overbilled during several years. That will make a total of $1.6-million.

Credits of $3.73 each to customers involved in 806,000 trouble reports lasting more than 24 hours. The number of customers involved isn't known because some had more than one trouble report. The total cost will be $3-million.

Southern Bell also will be placed on a three-year review program and must pay the state $1.4-million to cover the cost of the investigation, subsequent monitoring costs and the expense of possible future prosecution if any terms of the agreement are violated.

About 60,000 Southern Bell customers live in the Tampa Bay area, primarily in Hernando County, but also in Pasco and Citrus.