Whistleblower: Slam! goes your phone service

Last month, Andre Guirard of Plymouth got a letter thanking him for choosing ACN as his new telephone service provider. The problem was, he hadn't changed his phone service.

Perturbed, Guirard called North Carolina-based ACN and learned the truth: He'd been slammed.

Slamming is the industry term for having your phone service changed without your permission. It happens thousands of times each year nationwide, and it's illegal.

In this case, a sales representative for ACN found Guirard's name in the phone book and wrote it on a form authorizing the change in service, said Allan Van Buhler, ACN's chief marketing officer. Guirard was one of about 100 people signed up that way, Van Buhler said.

The practice of slamming has been around for years, and some of the biggest names in the telephone business have been slapped with multimillion-dollar fines. With all the attention to slamming, Van Buhler said, the problem is "really not that much of an issue today."

Still, the Federal Communications Commission dealt with 7,300 slamming complaints last year. That doesn't count complaints handled at the state level, as they are in Minnesota. Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, said he didn't have figures on Minnesota complaints about slamming and another practice, cramming, which involves tacking unauthorized charges onto phone bills.

"In general we have an uptick in both slamming and cramming complaints," Wogsland said Wednesday. "We would definitely encourage people to file complaints with our office if they encounter problems along these lines."

Once the company found out about the slamming, ACN took action, Van Buhler said. ACN uses a multi-level marketing approach to its sales force -- rather than employees, it uses independent agents, who pay ACN to become sales reps and earn commissions for each customer they sign up.

"We now know it to be a single rep within our organization who did this. On Jan. 29, he was deactivated," Van Buhler said. Translation: fired. "We have a zero-tolerance policy for this."

Van Buhler declined to identify the "deactivated" individual. But he said the company's investigation is typically forwarded to the authorities for possible prosecution.

"I know ACN wasn't scheming to have this happen," said Guirard, a software engineer. But if slamming victims don't bother to complain, he said, it clearly benefits ACN. "They can obviously do much, much more than they're doing to prevent this sort of thing."

While ACN is contacting each of the slamming victims and forgiving any charges, that doesn't automatically make things right. Another ACN slamming victim, David Zarkin of Bloomington, was initially told by Qwest that he had to pay a fee to have his service restored.

"Through no action of my own, I'm all of a sudden targeted by this phantom company in North Carolina," Zarkin said. "Now I've got a big mess to straighten out."

Under Minnesota law, the company that slammed has to pay for victims to get un-slammed. It can't charge people for any phone service during that time, either.

Victims of slamming and cramming can call the Minnesota Attorney General's citizen assistance line at 651-296-3353 or outside the metro, 1-800-657-3787.

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