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Maryland PSC questions Verizon

Specific penalties the company might face have not been discussed

Specific penalties the company might face have not been discussed

June 06, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

BALTIMORE -- Verizon officials on Thursday explained the computer error that caused about 11,000 unlisted and unpublished phone numbers to be printed in a Washington County directory.

Members of Maryland's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, grilled Verizon representatives about the mistake, which came to light in a story in Saturday's Herald-Mail.

Verizon officials said they're trying to recall as many directories as they can and will pay to publish a new directory. They're offering to change affected customers' phone numbers for free.

Before deciding what it might do, the PSC has asked for more information, such as how Verizon will help people in danger because their private addresses were released.

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During Thursday's 90-minute hearing in Baltimore, Verizon representatives apologized for the mistake and answered a slew of questions about it.

PSC members didn't suggest specific penalties Verizon might face.

They argued with Leigh Hyer, Verizon's vice president and general counsel for the Mid-Atlantic North region, who said Verizon did not violate a law.

Unlisted names, addresses and phone numbers were inadvertently published in Ogden Directories' EZ To Use Big Book for Washington County.

The number was first thought to be about 12,500, but Verizon has lowered the estimate to 11,000.

Ogden paid Verizon 4 cents apiece to supply all of the listings in the EZ To Use Big Book, a total of $3,082.88, according to papers Verizon submitted in response to PSC questions.

Verizon officials said their company is legally required to provide listings to other companies for directories; the Federal Communications Commission sets the per-listing cost.

Besides changing affected customers' phone numbers at no cost, Verizon has offered to give them a $25 credit, the approximate cost for a phone number not to be listed or published for one year.

For a small group of people whose safety has been jeopardized, Verizon might pay up to $1,000 for security surveillance systems, said Tom Moran, the executive director of Verizon's LiveSource division, which handles directory assistance services.

He said "less than 600" people have called to complain about being included in the phone directory.

Of those, about 120 then complained to a higher level, he said.

About 15 of the 120 appealed further, to an executive level. Moran said that's the group for which Verizon might cover security costs because they could be in danger.

"If people push high enough, they'll get more and more benefits ...," PSC Chairman Steven B. Larsen said. "Isn't it better to have a uniform policy to reimburse?"

Hyer said people were affected differently, so a single solution isn't possible.

Commission member Lawrence Brenner wondered how only 15 people have said they might be in danger, since dozens of police officers were included in the directory. Verizon officials said they haven't heard from the bulk of those individual officers.

A computer glitch about three months ago resulted in the accidental release of unlisted and unpublished phone numbers and addresses, Moran said.

One day, the system printing directory listings for Ogden failed because of an error, Moran said. The process resumed the next day - with a new command to include unlisted and unpublished phone numbers and addresses instead of exclude them.

About 5,500 unlisted and unpublished numbers correctly were filtered out before the computer error happened, he said.

No one realized the problem until Ogden distributed the directories in May and customers called to complain.

Moran said a job stoppage now will require two levels of employee review before work can continue, a step that would have prevented the recent problem.

Asked how far private listings might have gone beyond the Ogden directory, Hyer said much of that information already was available in other places through various means unconnected to Verizon's error.

Moran urged people need to take care of their own information, too.

"Keeping a telephone number private really is up to the customer," he said.

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