WebNet’s lawyer says the case is a “set up,” and consumers

were coached.

AUGUSTA (AP) – An investigation into more than 100 complaints of telephone “slamming” has resulted in a $4.6 million fine – the largest ever assessed by the Public Utilities Commission – against WebNet Communications Inc.

The regulatory agency said its staff documented 55 violations of Maine’s anti-slamming law and consumer-protection rules. Slamming is the illegal practice of changing local or long-distance carriers without the customer’s consent.

The Maine PUC’s fine was levied Monday. Several other states have investigated the Virginia-based company’s activities, and the Federal Communications Commission fined the company $1.2 million in a similar case earlier this year.

An attorney for WebNet, Charles Helein, said Maine’s case was based on “hearsay and inadmissible evidence.” Helein added that the case was “a set up” in which consumers were coached into making complaints, but acknowledged the company admitted 10 technical violations of the law.

The PUC cited numerous intentional violations of Maine’s anti-slamming law and said altered tapes had been used to create a false impression that customers agreed to the carrier changes.

A variety of methods were used to switch customers’ long-distance providers, the PUC said.

The commission said that in some cases, the company asked customers to provide their name, address, and date of birth or mother’s maiden name when offered a chance to win up to $100, a free calling card, a free Web page or a trip to Orlando, Fla.

Customers were asked if they were interested in the company’s promotion or contest. “Yes” answers were recorded and used as proof of authorization to change the telephone service, the PUC said. The same customers did not receive gifts they had been offered, according to the PUC.

Other customers who said they only asked for written information about WebNet’s rates later found that their long distance service was changed to WebNet, the PUC said.

“It is hard to imagine a case of more egregious conduct,” said PUC Chairman Thomas Welch, adding there are doubts whether the commission will recover the full penalty.

WebNet’s lawyer said the fine is excessive. Helein said the company proposed a settlement in which it would pay a smaller penalty and leave the state, but the PUC rejected it. WebNet no longer operates in Maine, he said.

Helein said the PUC changed witnesses’ testimony and broadened the investigation to include deceptive practices, which is outside the commission’s jurisdiction.

The size of the fine “doesn’t surprise us since that’s where they were going since they started this,” said Helein.

AP-ES-05-07-03 1305EDT

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