|Federal Communications Commission
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Washington, D.C. 20554
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This is an unofficial announcement of Commission action. Release of the full text of a Commission order constitutes official action. See MCI v. FCC. 515 F 2d 385 (D.C. Circ 1974).
FCC Proposes to Make Telephone Bills Clearer, More Helpful to Consumers
The Commission today proposed to make telephone bills more consumer-friendly by providing customers with information they need to make informed choices in a competitive telecommunications marketplace and to protect themselves against unscrupulous practices. The Commission has seen a tremendous growth in consumer complaints directly or indirectly arising out of the failure of telephone bills to provide consumers with essential information in a clear and conspicuous manner. The Commission found, for example, that consumer confusion over telephone bills has significantly contributed to the growth of telecommunications fraud, such as slamming and cramming. Each month, the Commission's Call Center receives approximately 10,000 inquiries from consumers with questions about charges on their bills. The Commission explained that clear, informative telephone bills are increasingly important as bills include charges for a growing number of services and service providers. Consumers must have adequate information about the services they are receiving, and the alternatives available to them, if they are to protect themselves against fraud and reap the benefits of a competitive market.
In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted today, the Commission outlined the following three guidelines and asked for comment from the states, consumer groups, the industry, and general public on proposals that would follow these guidelines.
One: Telephone bills should be clearly organized and highlight any new charges or changes to consumers' services.
Current bill formats make it difficult for consumers to detect when they've been slammed (switched to a new telephone company without their consent) or crammed (charged for a service that they did not order). To address this concern, the Commission asked for comment on (1) whether bills should contain a separate page or section that highlights any changes in the consumer's service since the last bill, including the addition of a new provider or new charges; (2) whether telephone companies should present separate categories of services (such as charges for local, long distance, and miscellaneous services) in clearly separate sections within the phone bill; and (3) whether bills should contain a separate section summarizing the current status of the consumer's services.
Two: Telephone bills should contain full and non-misleading descriptions of all charges and clear identification of the service provider responsible for each charge.
Vague or inaccurate descriptions of charges make it difficult for consumers to determine exactly what they are paying for and whether they received the services that correspond to such charges. To address this concern, the Commission proposed that (1) each charge on a telephone bill be accompanied by a brief, plain language description of the service rendered, and (2) the name of the service provider be clearly and conspicuously identified in association with its charges. The Commission also asked whether telephone bills should differentiate between charges for which non-payment could result in termination of basic telephone service and those charges for which telephone service would not be terminated for non-payment. The Commission noted that consumers may be reluctant to dispute certain unwarranted charges due to a mistaken belief that their basic telephone service could be terminated for non-payment.
In addition, the Commission asked for comment on the descriptions of charges resulting from federal regulatory action, such as charges intended to recover telephone companies' costs in obtaining access and meeting universal service obligations. In particular, the Commission asked (1) whether it should prescribe "safe harbor" language for use by companies that pass on to their customers charges for universal service or access and, if so, what language might be appropriate, and (2) whether it is reasonable for a company to bill a consumer for an amount identified as attributable to a particular cost while charging more than the actual cost incurred. The Commission said its goal is for telephone bills to allow consumers to understand easily the basis for each charge, discount, and assessment on their bills so that consumers may compare among service providers and offerings to select the best value.
Three: Telephone bills should contain clear and conspicuous disclosure of any information consumers need to make inquiries about charges.
Many consumers have complained that telephone bills often fail to provide customers with adequate information to allow them to dispute charges. The Commission found that, particularly in the case of slamming and cramming, consumers often experience considerable difficulty in contacting the company whose charges appear on the bill. The Commission therefore proposed that each bill contain the name of each service provider, a business address, and a toll-free telephone number for the receipt of consumer inquiries and complaints. In addition, the Commission asked for any other proposals to ensure that consumers have the contact information they need to resolve billing disputes.
The Commission noted that many parties, including the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), members of Congress, and consumer groups, have expressed concern about unclear or misleading telephone bills. The Commission stressed that it seeks input from all interested parties on how to address those concerns though this proceeding.
Action by the Commission September 17, 1998, by Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 98-232). Chairman Kennard, Commissioners Ness, Furchtgott-Roth, Powell and Tristani, with Commissioners Ness, Furchtgott-Roth, Powell and Tristani issuing separate statements.
News media contact: Rochelle Cohen at (202) 418-0253.
Common Carrier Bureau contact: Anita Cheng at (202) 418-0996.
TTY: (202) 418-2555.