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MCI paralyzes US Reg bureau

Further acts of random billing "likely, impossible to prevent" - experts

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A week before US homeland defense chiefs warned of further domestic subversion, the nation's most notorious homegrown crime syndicate was quietly going about its lethal business.

It goes by many names, but you've probably heard of at least one: "MCI Worldcom", and it's this faction that chose to strike at the very nerve center of The Register's electronic communication hub here in San Francisco. Yes, our telephone line.

You see, two weeks ago I moved. A mile or two.

And this involved getting a new number, as even in a city as small as San Francisco, numbers aren't transferrable across local exchanges. But you also need two carriers: long distance and international calls are the subject of fierce competition here between folks such as Sprint and MCI Worldcom to provide cheap tariffs, and the bare-nekkid alternative is unthinkable. It's also obligatory to have a local provider too, one of the baby Bells. Aware of MCI's history in "random billing", I'd made sure to check with both the local telco, and MCI itself, that my cheap-rate international plans would carry forward before moving.

Then early this evening a looping tape recorded message (no, I'm not making this bit up) urged us to call the Fraud department of MCI Worldcom.

For an invoice period of just five days, someone had run up hundreds of dollars in calls on my line to Europe and Asia. And that someone was me. One 27 minute long "economy rate" international call alone topped out at $88.83. This wasn't the exactly attractive rate plan I was used to, but I assumed that with the fraud unearthed, MCI operatives could quickly fix things.

Here's where things got Kafka-esque.

"I can't rebill you," said the High Toll Department rep, "because that's a Customer Service matter . You need to call them, it's 1-800…"

OK, OK. But he had yet to deliver the blow to the groin.

"We are going to have to block your calls you unless you meet the following condition:-"

Yes, yes. Go on -

"Do you have a previous bill of a similar amount with MCI?"

Well of course not. Because we use the cheap rate plans. 9 cents a minute to the UK, and all that. Which MCI promised would carry forward, but which it forgot to do, of course.

Very archly, he then invited us to pay the off bogus bill off there and then.

Nice try.

Live at the Witch Trials

So let's get this right, we argued. Unless we'd previously run up a barenaked, full price phone bill of hundreds of dollars of calls in a few days - and people only enroll with MCI Worldcom to avoid such tariffs - we couldn't be reprieved?

"That's the policy of the High Toll Department. And it looks like… you have no such bills"

Admit it, it's creative. As we pointed this out:-

"So it's like, you're fitted up on a murder rap. But unless you can provide evidence of previous unconfessed murders, you're going to stay in the clink?"

"That's the policy of the High Toll Department," he confirmed.

And it's a policy that brings the Puritan's witches ducking stool (float and you're guilty, sink and you're… dead) screaming into the twenty first century. The old ones are the best.

By now your mild-mannered Bureau chief could have passed for John Cleese on crystal meth, but we figured we'd take the robot's advice.

So I called Customer Service. After twenty minutes on hold, a helpful lass answered and promised to sort us out. Then, after a minute, the line went dead. That's funny. So I redialed.

"We are now closed for the day…" ran the taped message.

That's right. At 10pm Central Time, the MCI Customer Service call centers simply drop an axe through their lines. If you're half way through a call, then tough. That's pretty dour customer service, even for someone born and raised in the North of England.

We took refuge in the pub, where a (female) friend reminded us that we only had ourselves to blame:

"You were with MCI Worldcom?" she asked incredulously. "So was I. They put me up against a wall and raped me."

They're very frank, these East Coast lasses. I like that.

Normal service will be…
We expect this outage will be resolved by the time you read this. In the meantime - can any kind readers suggest an alternative to the MCI Worldcom terror?

And rather obviously, for now - Call Us. Because we temporarily at least - We Can't Call You… ®

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