Francine Giani was slammed twice last year.
First in September, and again in December, her long-distance telephone service provider was changed without her authorization.Giani said she considers herself to be a savvy consumer. She is, after all, the director of Utah's Division of Consumer Protection.
But it took her three months in both instances to realize she had been slammed because she did not look at her phone bills.
"If it's happened to me, it's probably happened to thousands of other consumers across the state," Giani told members of the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee Wednesday.
"It is a serious problem. It costs thousands of dollars. . . . Most people are not even aware that it's happened to them."
The committee plans to further discuss telecommunications fraud issues and possible legislative solutions next month, but it set the table Wednesday by listening to some industry officials and consumers.
Giani said her office receives five to 10 complaints every day from people who were slammed. Utah Public Service Commission Chairman Steve Mecham said the PSC receives five to eight complaints each day.
US WEST Communications fielded almost 392,000 slamming complaints from customers in its 14-state region during 1997, up from 165,000 in 1996.
Ted Smith, US WEST's Utah vice president, said the company deals with about 300 different long-distance carriers in its area. The vast majority of them are reputable, he said, and US WEST has the responsibility to make it easy for consumers to change carriers.
But slamming is a growing headache for US West, Smith said, because the company has to spend its money to investigate complaints and help wronged consumers.
"I believe there need to be tough penalties imposed on repeat slammers," he said.
Smith and several other speakers said they were not sure whether the state Legislature, federal government or PSC should make and enforce slamming rules. But they all agreed something needs to be done about the problem, as well as telemarketing fraud, spamming and cramming.
Spamming refers to the mass-mailing of unsolicited e-mail. Cramming occurs when services that customers did not order appear on their phone bills.
Virginia VanLeeuwen of West Valley City said she has twice had items she did not order show up on her US WEST phone bill. To get the problem fixed, she said, she spent more than 20 hours writing letters and making phone calls that often left her frustrated.
"I'm the consumer. I'm paying the money. I'm the one that should decide what's on that bill . . .," VanLeeuwen said. "I don't care what name you put to it, but it's stealing."
Smith said US WEST provides billing services for several other telecommunications service providers, but it is fighting cramming.
US WEST spokesman Duane Cooke said one of the companies VanLeeuwen had trouble with received several complaints, so US WEST stopped billing for it. The phone company has taken similar action against other crammers, he said.
US WEST has urged all consumers to carefully examine their phone bills and call 1-800-244-1111 if they find any errors.
In the area of telemarketing, both Smith and Giani said they have seen a decline in fraud by telephone solicitors.
Garth Howard, president of Matrixx Marketing's Direct Broadcast Satellite Group in Utah, said the industry is concerned about deceptive practices and is working with government officials to stop the fraud.
Matrixx has about 8,000 employees in Utah, many of them working in telemarketing.
"All of these practices are bad for the consumer and bad for the economy," Howard said. "Finding ways to stop these practices is as important to us in the industry as it is to consumers."