Truth in Billing: Understanding Your Bill
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a number of requirements and standards that community based telecom providers, other local telephone companies, and most telecom companies must follow when billing their customers. These rules are commonly referred to as "Truth in Billing" (TIB). The FCC established these TIB rules to help consumers better understand how they are billed for telecom services and to combat the rising incidence of slamming, cramming, and other telephone fraud and abuse.
In summary, the rules are designed to ensure that your bill is clearly organized and that you can identify the provider associated with each charge. In addition, your bill must include a clear description of all charges and list a toll-free number for you to call for further explanation.
Q: I do not recognize a company listed on my bill. Who are they, and why are they billing me?
A: Your bill must include the name and toll-free telephone number of any company that has charged you for its services, along with the charges for those services. If you don't recognize the company or have questions about the Services for which you've been billed, call the company to ask for more information about the services. Some service providers do not bill their customers directly, so they must contract with local companies to bill for them. These service providers send us your usage data electronically, and we use that information to bill on their behalf. Increasingly, telemarketers and scam artists use customers' phone numbers to post unauthorized and fraudulent charges in the data sent to us for billing. These charges can be for many things, but the result is that the charges are included in the billing data. We have no way to monitor its accuracy. The billing rules are intended to make sure that the format of your bill helps you more easily identify any unauthorized or fraudulent charges.
Q: Why are the charges from each company listed separately on my bill?
A: The TIB rules require that we organize your bill so that charges from each company billing you for service appears separately. For example, if you have chosen one long-distance company for your in-region (intraLATA) long- distance calls and another for your out-of-region and state-to-state (interLATA) calls, your bill will list the calls with each company separately.
Q: A company has listed charges on my bill for telephone-related services that I do not understand, and the description is unclear. How can I get them explained?
A: You may find charges on your bill that are not from your local company. The name and toll-free number of the company charging you for telephone-related services is listed in the section where those charges appear. You should call that company and ask for an explanation. You can also dispute the charges and request that the company remove them from your bill. As your local company, we remind you that as part of our service commitment, our business office is always available if you have questions about your bill. If you have any difficulty in contacting the service providers listed on your bill, or if you're not satisfied with the response they give you, we' help you resolve the problem.
Q: There is a statement on my bill that says, "This company did not bill you for services in the previous billing cycle." What does that mean?
A: In its rules, the FCC ordered that customers be notified of a "new" service provider any time a bill includes charges from a company that did not bill the customer for services in the previous billing cycle. However, such notification applies only to "subscribed" services; i.e., when a service provider has a continuing relationship with a customer and likely places regular or periodic charges on your bill. For example, long-distance surcharges, voice mail, Internet access, and other services that continue until you terminate them, are subject to the notification rule. On the other hand, services billed on a per- transaction basis, such as directory assistance, dial-around (10-10) toll calls, and other "non-recurring" pay-per-call services, are not subject to the notification requirements.
Q: If I want to dispute a charge that appears on my bill - and don't pay the charge while I'm disputing it - how will I know if my local service will be disrupted?
A: We identify all charges on your bill that, if not paid, could result in the disconnection of your basic local service; such services are listed as "deniable" charges. Our (STATE PUC) designates the individual charges we must classify as "deniable," and those charges are identified on your bill. Non-payment of other, "non-deniable" charges can result in the termination of that specific service, but will not lead to the disconnection of basic local service. If you don't recognize the charges, you should call the toll-free number listed on the bill within 60 days to ensure there is no interruption of the service in question.
Q: I am confused about some of the toll-free numbers listed on my bill. Is the actual service provider always the appropriate party for me to contact?
A: Some service providers bill you directly. Others use third parties, known as "billing agents" or "aggregators," to bill for them. Thus, the actual service provider is not always the appropriate party to contact if you have questions or problems. In fact, some service providers have contracted with third-party billing agents or aggregators just to handle inquiry and dispute resolution of the charges placed on your bill.
The rules require that the toll-free number listed on your bill as the "inquiry contact" - regardless of whether it's for the actual provider, a billing agent, or an aggregator - must connect you to someone who has "sufficient knowledge and authority" to resolve account inquiries and requests for adjustment. The FCC allows the use of inquiry contacts because of consumer concerns about the complexity of their bills and because of increased fraud and abuse. Inquiry contacts are intended to help consumers become more educated about their bills and the billing process.
Q: Are service providers required to list their business address? How can I contact a provider if I'm not satisfied with the resolution reached on the phone?
A: Service providers are not required to include their business address on each telephone bill for the receipt of consumer inquiries and complaints. However, they are required to make their business address available to consumers on request through their toll-free number.
Q: What is the basic local service rate and how is it billed?
A: In most cases, the basic local service rate covers your dial tone - the service connection that allows you to make and receive local (non-toll) calls. Failure to pay the basic local service rate and applicable taxes and fees will result in disconnection and loss of service.
Local telephone service is billed one month in advance - and is usually due within 10 days after receipt. Charges for usage, on the other hand, are billed after a particular service; e.g., long-distance calls, calling-card, wireless, etc. is used.
Q: What is the federal "subscriber line charge" (SLC)?
A: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that local telephone companies recover a portion of the costs of the facilities we use to connect your home or business for services through a monthly assessment on all residential and business customers. Commonly known as the federal "subscriber line charge," this assessment is part of the FCC's effort to promote a competitive framework for the U.S. telecom industry. The federal SLC is a flat monthly charge assessed directly on your bill.
The FCC established the federal SLC as a way to reduce the "access charges" paid by long-distance companies but still compensate local companies for the use of our networks by those carriers to gain "access" to their customers. Prior to the establishment of the SLC, long-distance carriers were assessed a per-minute "access" charge to use our facilities, but the FCC changed the way we charge for that cost. For purposes of competition, the FCC decided to target end-user customers more directly for these costs. As a result, the SLCs result in no additional revenue for local telephone companies.
In January 2002, the federal SLCs for customers of community based telecom providers increased from $3.50 to $5.00 monthly for residential and single-line business customers, and from $6.00 to as much as $9.20 per line for multi-line businesses. Residential and single-line business SLCs increased again in July 2002 to $6.00, and rose again, to $6.50, in July 2003. Following these increases, the SLC levels of community based telecom providers are now the same as those charged by larger, urban companies.
Q: Why did the FCC authorize increases in the federal SLC?
A: As part of its effort to promote competition, the FCC reviewed the rules and regulations that govern the telephone industry and decided to rebalance rates and charges. The SLC increases reflect the FCC's belief that end-user customers should be more directly responsible for the costs necessary to provide them service and that the "access charges" paid by long-distance companies should be reduced. In 2000, the FCC authorized the first in a series of SLC increases for the large local companies. Reasoning that rural customers should pay the same levels of subscriber line charges as urban customers, the FCC expanded the SLC changes to community based telecom providers in 2001.
Q: What is the Federal Universal Service Charge (FUSC)?
A: The "Federal Universal Service Charge" (FUSC), also authorized by the FCC, is not part of your local service rate; the charge helps to keep rates affordable for all Americans, regardless of where they live. The amount of the FUSC on your monthly bill depends on the services you order and the number of telephone lines you have. Generally, the surcharge is applied per line. In July 2002, the FCC authorized an increase in the FUSC to $0.46 per month per line. And in July 2003, FUSC charge became 9.1% of the SLC charge.
The federal government has established national programs to support universal telephone service. The federal Universal Service Fund assists with the costs of providing "affordable" telecommunications service to low-income individuals and to residents in rural, high-cost areas. In addition, Congress has expanded the program to help schools, libraries, and rural health care providers obtain leading-edge services, such as high-speed Internet access. All providers of telecom services contribute to the support of these universal service programs.
Q: Where do the federal SLC and FUSC fees go?
A: The federal SLC and FUSC fees go to federal administrative agencies created to oversee and manage the funds. The federal SLC fees are re-distributed to local telephone companies based on our specific costs. These funds enable us, and other local companies and cooperatives in hard-to-serve, high-cost areas, to recover some of the costs of the facilities we use to connect your home or business. The FUSC fees allow us to recover our contribution assessments for the federal universal service programs. A portion of the funds collected from the Federal Universal Service Charge is distributed to keep rates in high-cost rural areas at or near the national average.
Q: What does "universal service" mean to me?
A: For almost 70 years, the nation has made a policy commitment to make telephone service available to as many Americans as possible - rich or poor, rural or urban. When Congress passed the Communications Act in 1934, it established the concept of universal service as a principle to promote the development and reach of the national telephone network by distributing costs across various services and users in order to connect all segments of the American public.
Universal service recognizes the economic reality that the cost of providing telephone service in rural areas such as where Public Service Telephone operates, is significantly higher than in well-populated, urban parts of the country, but that the nation as a whole benefits from a network that connects to as many Americans as possible. We can look on universal service as a system by which everyone benefits because everyone else has a telephone. Because of universal service, independent companies serving high-cost rural areas have been assured of appropriate recognition of their costs, and Americans have been assured of quality telephone service at reasonable rates, no matter where they live.
Q: How does the universal service support system work?
A: Traditionally, long-distance carriers paid access charges to local companies for "access" to the local network to enable customers to make or receive long- distance calls. These access-charge dollars reflect a legitimate business cost, compensating local companies for the long-distance carriers' use of our networks. Universal service support and access charge revenues are essential to community based telecom providers. These programs help companies serving rural areas keep local rates affordable and comparable to rates in urban areas where the population is more densely clustered and costs are not as high. We continue to rely on this support today, given the costs of the equipment and facilities necessary to make new and advanced services available to rural customers.
Q: Do all local telephone companies receive universal service support?
A: No, all local companies do not qualify for this support. While most telecom providers contribute to universal service, companies that serve large, urban markets are not likely to qualify for support from the federal Universal Service Fund. Companies that serve large cities such as Chicago, for example, and other urban areas usually do not qualify for universal service support. Thus, through their SLC and FUSC payments, customers of the large urban-based companies help keep local rates "comparable" and "affordable" for those served by community based providers and other rural companies. This mutual social benefit is the very objective that universal service was designed to achieve.
Q: What does the E 911 charge cover?
A: The E-911 charge is a state/local government charge to fund emergency-911 services, such as fire and rescue.
Q: What is the Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) Charge?
A: Local telephone companies offer Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) to help hearing- or speech-impaired individuals communicate via the telephone. TRS is required by Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act and to the extent possible, must be "functionally equivalent" to standard telephone services. Communications assistants (CAs) relay the content of calls between users of special text telephones (TTYs) and users of traditional telephones. For example, a TTY user can use the phone by calling a TRS provider (or relay center), where a CA will place the call to the voice user and relay the conversation by transcribing spoken content for the TTY user and reading text aloud for the voice user.
Costs for intrastate TRS (that is, TRS calls made within a state) are paid by the individual states. Generally, states recover the TRS costs through a small assessment on all telephone customers in the state.
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Q: What taxes are included on my bill?
A: Your bill includes the 3% federal excise tax levied by the federal government that applies to all telecom services, not just local service. This tax dates back to 1898 when it was enacted to finance the Spanish-American War. In addition, many state, local, and/or municipal governments impose taxes on telecom services and, if applicable, these taxes are listed on your bill.
Q: What is the Federal Universal Service Charge on my long-distance bill? Is this the same charge as on my local bill? Do all long-distance companies charge the same rate?
A: This charge (also called the Federal Universal Connectivity Fee or Carrier Universal Service Charge) is similar to the FUSC for local service. All telecom providers, including long-distance companies, are required to contribute to the support of federal universal service. Currently, the federally imposed level for this charge is approximately 7% of your state-to-state and international toll charges.
In recovering this assessment, most national long-distance companies charge their customers percentages above the mandatory federal level. Some, in fact, charge customers as much as 11.5% of their monthly charges. On the other hand, the long-distance subsidiaries of community based telecom providers do not exceed the federally mandated amount - and many do not pass this charge on to their customers at all.
Q: My long-distance bill includes a "one-bill" charge? How can I get my local and long-distance charges on a single bill without being charged?
A: Some long-distance companies charge as much as $1.50 per month to include long-distance charges on the same bill as local charges. These companies include this charge in the billing information they submit to the local company with whom they've contracted to bill for them. A local company that bills for a long-distance company does not authorize a single-bill fee.
Many community based telecom providers also offer long-distance service. Customers who want their local and long-distance charges on one combined bill must select their local, long-distance provider as their preferred carrier. Long distance service provided by community based companies generally offer rates and plans comparable to those of the national carriers. At the same time, community based companies offer the advantage of a long-distance alternative closer to home - with service from people you know and trust.
Q: I'm confused about the rates I've been charged for my long-distance calls? How are my 1+ calls charged?
A: Your bill lists charges for the individual long-distance (Dial 1) calls you've made using the long-distance company you've chosen as your preferred, 1+ carrier. Long distance rates differ significantly depending on the type of call you make; i.e., out of region (state-to-state) or in-region; interLATA or intraLATA. Also, calls are generally priced based on duration and time-of-day. Most long- distance companies have "basic rate" service (no calling plan) with rates that are much higher than those in their calling plans, which offer reduced per- minute rates, but require a monthly "buy-in" fee that remains constant regardless of the number of 1+ calls a customer makes. Public Service Worldwide Connections does not charge a "buy in" fee for their long distance calling plan.
The FCC has shifted the responsibility for investigation and resolution of customer complaints from the long-distance companies to state regulatory commissions - if a state commission declines, the FCC itself assumes responsibility. All carriers, local and long-distance alike, must comply with the rules on preferred carrier changes, which apply to both local (in areas where there is competition) and long-distance carriers.
The FCC gives states the option of administering the preferred carrier change rules. The state can do so either through the state regulatory commission or other agency charged with resolving unauthorized changes. Because either the state or the FCC may be the administrator, the rules refer to the responsible agency as the "relevant governmental agency"(RGA).
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Q: What is slamming?
A: You have the right to choose any certified long-distance carrier that offers you service and to change your "preferred" carrier (PIC) whenever you wish. Slamming is the unauthorized and illegal switching of a customer's preferred long-distance company. If you've been slammed, you have the right to be switched back to your preferred carrier at no cost.
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Q: I have been billed for long-distance charges from a company I did not choose as my preferred carrier. What do I do to get these charges removed from my bill?
A: Customers who believe they've been slammed; i.e., that there has been an unauthorized change in their PIC selection, should inform us immediately. Once we receive notification of an unauthorized PIC change, we will do the following:
PSTC looks up whether it has received a carrier change request from a long distance carrier, and whether the customer has a PIC Freeze on their phone service, prohibiting such a change without customer approval.
PSTC will change back the carrier if requested by the customer, however, there is a charge for the corrected change as required. However, most carriers are aware of the charge, and some will provide a credit to cover your switch back.
A restricted PIC Freeze is suggested at this point to prevent future "slamming".
Q: What will the RGA do when an unauthorized PIC change is reported?
A: The FCC rules require that:
Any carrier informed by a customer of an unauthorized PIC change must direct the customer to the relevant governmental agency (RGA). The RGA for Public Service Telephone is the Georgia Public Service Commission.
Upon receiving a complaint, the RGA will notify the alleged unauthorized carrier and order that the carrier remove from the customer's bill all unpaid charges for the first 30 days after the unauthorized change (slam) took place, pending determination of whether an unauthorized change has actually occurred.
Within 30 days of notification, the alleged unauthorized carrier must provide to the RGA valid proof of verification of the customer's PIC change, which must comply with the FCC's authorization and verification rules.
Failure by the carrier to respond or provide proof of verification will be presumed to be clear and convincing evidence of an unauthorized change (slam).
If the RGA determines that an unauthorized change (slam) has occurred, it will order the unauthorized carrier to comply with the 30-day absolution rule and/or the reimbursement rules.
Q: What does the 30-day absolution period cover?
A: The 30-day absolution period refers to the first 30 days after an unauthorized PIC change (slam) has been made. The customer is not responsible for any charges during that period, as long as the charges have not been paid. If the customer has already paid the charges, the reimbursement rules apply (see next question). Any local telephone company, unauthorized long-distance carrier, or authorized long-distance carrier receiving a report of an unauthorized change must inform the customer of the 30-day absolution period.
The alleged unauthorized carrier may challenge the validity of a complaint of an unauthorized change, but it must remove unpaid charges from a customer's bill, whether or not it challenges the allegation. Should the RGA investigation indicate that the PIC change was authorized, the charges will be reinstated.
Q: What if I already paid the unauthorized carrier? Can I still get reimbursed for charges incurred during the first 30 days?
A: If it is determined that an unauthorized change (slam) has occurred and the customer has already made payment to the unauthorized carrier for charges applicable to the first 30 days, the customer is entitled to a refund equal to 50% of the charges paid. The authorized carrier must remit the 50% refund to the customer within 10 days of receiving payment from the unauthorized carrier. The customer has the option of requesting that the authorized carrier re-bill the unauthorized charges at the authorized carrier's rate. In either case, however, the customer will actually receive the refund only if the unauthorized carrier remits the funds to the authorized carrier.
Q: What about unpaid charges incurred after the 30-day absolution period?
A: If the customer has charges from an unauthorized carrier for calls made after the 30-day absolution period and for which payment has not been made, the unauthorized carrier must remove the charges from the bill and forward the billing information to the authorized carrier. The authorized carrier will bill the customer for unpaid calls carried by the unauthorized carrier after the 30-day absolution period, either at its own rate or at a rate equal to 50% of the unauthorized carrier's rate. If the authorized carrier chooses to bill the calls at the 50% rate, the customer has the right to reject that method and request the authorized rate.
Q: What must the unauthorized carrier do after it receives notification of a slamming complaint?
A: Under the rules, the alleged unauthorized carrier must do the following:
Inform the customer of the 30-day absolution period.
Refer the customer to the state RGA or, if appropriate, the FCC Consumer Information Bureau.
Remove the unpaid charges from the customer's bill.
Refer the complaint to the RGA for resolution.
Provide proof of verification, if available, to the RGA within 30 days of notification of the complaint, or sooner if required by state rule.
Depending on the resolution of the complaint by the RGA, comply with all relevant liability rules, absolution procedures, and reimbursement procedures.
Q: How can I prevent being slammed?
A: First, always check your bill carefully. If you find charges from a long-distance company that you don't recognize or didn't choose or authorize as your preferred carrier, chances are you've been slammed. Contact us, and we'll help you resolve the problem. You've probably received telemarketing calls or promotional mailings "urging" you to switch or "verifying" you have switched. If you don't want to change your long-distance carrier, tell the caller or respond to the mailing that you don't want their service. To be safe, call us to confirm you're still being served by the long-distance company you've chosen.
Remember, it is against the law for any carrier to submit a change of your selection of a service provider that does not comply with prescribed procedures. In more basic terms, the FCC has issued specific rules to discourage slamming. You should note, however, that these same rules prohibit local telephone companies from verifying the change orders submitted by long-distance carriers. As a service to customers, Public Service Telephone provides an extra level of slamming protection for you - in the form of a restricted "preferred carrier freeze." This can be added at no additional cost by simply calling the business office at PSTC (for more details - see "PIC Freezes".
Most community based telecom providers, such as Public Service Telephone, offer customers protection from slamming and unauthorized changes in their long- distance company; that is by choosing a PIC (Preferred Interexchange Carrier) Freeze. By notifying us that you wish to "freeze" your long-distance company, you can avoid being slammed or suffering an unauthorized change.
If you request a PIC freeze on your long-distance service, your preferred carrier cannot be changed without your direct authorization, either written or verbal. Public Service Telephone does not charge to this service. If you'd like to take advantage of this protection, just call our business office, and a Customer Service Representative will help you.
Q: What is a preferred carrier freeze?
A: To prevent slamming, local telephone companies offer a preferred carrier (PIC) freeze, a service that enables you to prevent any changes being made in your selection of a "preferred" long-distance provider, unless you first give express consent to lift the freeze. Local companies make PIC freezes available to customers, regardless of the company selected as the preferred long- distance carrier.
Q: How are freeze orders accepted?
A: The FCC requires that customers be able to impose (or lift) a PIC freeze by contacting their local telephone company. Local companies may not accept freeze orders from a carrier on your behalf. You can make a PIC change and a PIC freeze at the same time, but in such cases, we must verify both your carrier change and freeze requests.
Q: What is cramming?
A: Telephone numbers are becoming more like account numbers. Long-distance companies and other telecom providers that do not bill customers themselves contract with local companies to bill for them. These companies send the billing information to us electronically, and we use the data to bill customers on their behalf.
Telemarketers, con artists, and other criminals frequently use phone numbers for cramming, the unauthorized, deceptive, and fraudulent posting of charges in the billing data sent to local telephone companies. In essence, cramming refers to charges customers find on their bills for services they did not authorize, order, or receive. Because the billing process is automated and we do not have the authority to screen the data, we rely strictly on the information sent to us.
The charges commonly found in cramming abuse can be for a variety of things; e.g., voice mail, calling cards, personal 800 numbers, 900 services, sweepstakes, and other marketing offers. In addition, you may find charges listed for legitimate services, but ones you did not order or authorize, as well as for "fees," "memberships," "usage," or other services described only in general terms - or not at all. Cramming charges are often difficult to identify and can be detected only if you carefully review your bill each month.
Q: I have found charges on my bill for services I did not order or authorize. How do I get these charges removed from my bill?
A: If there is a charge on your bill that is unauthorized or fraudulent, you don't have to pay it. But you do have to notice it! If you find a charge on your bill for something you didn't ask for or authorize, call the company that charged you. Ask for an explanation of the charge and request adjustments or refunds for incorrect or unauthorized items. Since company information can often be hard to get, you should also call us. We have some procedures in place to help you respond to incorrect charges listed on your bills.