AUGUSTA – How many minutes is that prepaid calling card worth? Maybe not as many as you think.

After changes made by AT&T last year, prepaid rates for in-state calls jumped to three times more than state-to-state calls, leaving many customers confused.

“If you bought a card for 1,000 minutes, all of a sudden it would say you have 333 minutes left if you were making an in-state call,” said Wayne Jortner, an attorney with Maine’s Public Advocate Office. “It would be the full 1,000 minutes if you were making a state-to-state call.”

About a year ago, AT&T decided in-state costs were more expensive that interstate costs, Jortner said.

“Now in Maine, because we know the details, we know that tripling the rate is an egregious overcompensation for the small differences in in-state versus interstate calling,” he said.

But while Jortner acknowledged that AT&T is entitled to charge customers “whatever they want,” he said the company was not allowed to defraud them.

“That’s why we had an issue with the way they did it,” he said. “People didn’t know what they were getting when they were buying it.”

Jortner worked with Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, in crafting a bill to help inform Maine residents who use prepaid cards of the varying rates. The bill was unanimously approved by the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee on Tuesday, and will move to House floor for a vote.

Adams said the rate change affects many elderly Mainers who live on fixed incomes and rely on the prepaid cards for their long-distance calling.

The bill would ensure the value of a prepaid card could not be reduced after sale and require the card’s packaging to say if rates are different for in-state and out-of-state calls. Customers renewing their cards would also receive notice if the rates had changed since their last purchase of minutes, according to the bill.

Jortner said many Mainers were upset after the changes AT&T made last year, prompting the legislation.

‘Flood of complaints’

“We got a flood of complaints,” Jortner said. “We communicated with the Public Utilities Commission, and they were also getting complaints. They took the lead in negotiating with AT&T to avoid a more formal investigation and some kind of penalty.”

As a result of negotiations with the PUC, AT&T is now in compliance with the bill’s provisions, even before its passage, Jortner said.

But he cautioned consumers to be wary.

“If it’s mixed in with all the fine print, it’s difficult to expect a customer to notice it,” he said.

Members of the PUC said they hoped Adam’s bill would “streamline the regulatory process” and protect customers in the future.

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