PSC closes unlisted-number case

May 20, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

The Maryland Public Service Commission has closed a year-old case involving the inadvertent release of about 11,000 private phone numbers by rebuking Verizon but taking no action.

Verizon, which blamed a computer glitch for the mistake, automatically gave a $25 credit to those who were affected. For nearly 100 customers with convincing concerns about their safety, the utility offered to pay up to $1,000 apiece for security systems; more than half accepted.

The PSC wrote in a May 12 order that it was satisfied with Verizon's eventual response, yet chastised the phone company for its early-on approach.

"Had Verizon initially accepted the security concerns and resulting frustration of its customers and responded proactively to alleviate these concerns, a great deal of customer frustration could have been avoided," a footnote in the order says.


Asked about the commission's order Wednesday, Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette wrote in an e-mail, "Verizon feels the commission's action in closing the case was appropriate."

The PSC's order comes nearly 12 months after The Herald-Mail reported that thousands of unlisted and unpublished phone numbers and addresses were printed in a Washington County phone directory.

Victims in domestic abuse cases and people who work in law enforcement, in particular, were among those who said they were worried about their safety and privacy.

Verizon sold the listings to Ogden Directories for its 2008-2009 EZ To Use Big Book.

The PSC summoned Verizon officials to talk about the foul-up during a hearing on June 5, 2008. Five days earlier, The Herald-Mail had broken the news of the glitch as the directory reached homes.

Verizon representatives apologized to the PSC for the mistake and answered a slew of questions about it.

To affected customers, Verizon offered a $25 credit -- roughly the cost of one year of having a number not listed or published -- and the chance to get a new phone number at no charge.

The utility approved paying for a security system or related monthly services for 91 customers; 52 of those customers followed through, submitting reimbursement receipts totaling about $51,000, according to papers Verizon filed with the PSC.

Verizon paid to have the EZ To Use Big Book printed again. It also organized a recall of the old directories in exchange for $5 gift cards, portraying it as a recycling effort rather than an attempt to remove private information.

Arnette said in an e-mail that Verizon donated $11,000 to Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, a Hagerstown nonprofit organization that helps people affected by physical and sexual abuse.

That included $1,000 gained by recycling the first batch of directories. The other $10,000 was from a Verizon Foundation grant, Arnette wrote.

After word got out about the release of the unlisted numbers, the Office of the People's Counsel, an independent state agency that represents Maryland's residential utility customers, asked the PSC to open a formal investigation.

In February, the PSC declined, calling it unnecessary as Verizon willingly worked to address the mistake.

Paula M. Carmody, the people's counsel, said Wednesday that Verizon apparently made reasonable accommodations to help affected customers.

At the same time, she said, she's disappointed the PSC didn't require a formal investigation to help figure out if the same error could happen again.

"We were looking for the commission to take a broader look," Carmody said.

In 2004, The Washington Post reported that thousands of unlisted phone numbers appeared in directories published by Verizon and other companies.

Washington County Sheriff Douglas F. Mullendore said Wednesday that he didn't know of any cases of violence or harassment connected to last year's release of private listings.

For the sheriff's department employees whose private phone numbers or addresses were published, Verizon either paid for a security system or changed their phone number, Mullendore said.

"I didn't hear any negative feedback," he said.

Affected customers

In papers filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission, Verizon said 10,980 residential customers were affected when private phone numbers and addresses inadvertently were published in a directory last year.

They received a $25 credit on their bills, roughly the cost of having a phone number not listed or published one year.

o Of those 10,980 customers, 290 subsequently told Verizon they were concerned about their security or "sought to escalate" their concerns about the disclosure.

o Verizon approved 91 of those 290 customers for security systems and/or related monthly systems.

o Fifty-two of the 91 followed through and submitted reimbursement receipts totaling $50,677.73.

o Verizon denied security-system reimbursement requests from 19 of the 290 customers who "did not demonstrate that they faced a credible threat to their security as a result of the inadvertent disclosure."

o The remaining 180 of 290 customers were satisfied with the automatic $25 credit, had their phone number changed, received one free year of Caller ID or didn't have an unlisted number.

o One customer asked to be reimbursed for a firearm. "For liability reasons, Verizon did not entertain this request," Verizon wrote in its PSC filing.

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