State Rep. H. Bernard LeBas says his odyssey, which began with his daughter, probably will end Tuesday when the legislative allies of big business crush his legislation.
There, on page 13 of LeBas’s January phone bill, his daughter had asked about a couple of hard-to-fathom lines with charges that added up to $86.60, the Ville Platte Democrat recalled last week.
After several days talking to many service representatives all over the country, LeBas learned those lines, such as “UniqueWebList MthSvcFee,” were for the design and maintenance of a website the proudly old-fashioned 68-year-old didn’t have, never asked for, didn’t know about. But LeBas said he unwittingly had been paying the charges tucked into his regular monthly phone bill for months.
“I look at the bill every month, but I never really saw it until she pointed it out,” LeBas said. “I mean, I’m not an ignorant man, but some people — I guess I’m one of them — are too busy to look closely. All I see is that the bill is about what it was last month, so I pay it.”
It’s a common practice for companies to bill for their services as “third party providers” on the regular monthly bills of phone companies, utilities, cable television, internet connections, even banks.
Louisiana regulations require that additional services need “clear and conspicuous identification” on monthly bills.
Much, if not most, third-party billing is on the up and up. But something called “cramming” is on the rise. A salesman during some phone pitch, allegedly fast-talks a voice authorization for a monthly charge from people who don’t quite understand what they’re agreeing to. LeBas says this is what happened to him, but he can’t recall the details. “I get a lot of those kinds of phone calls,” he said.
Doing what Louisiana legislators do, LeBas filed what he thought was an unassuming measure. House Bill 278, which is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the House Commerce Committee, would require written authorization.
He unwittingly has stumbled into a national controversy.
Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota and New York recently enacted anti-cramming laws that detail the kind of proof necessary before companies can add the fees of “third party providers” to monthly bills.
California regulators enacted rules, and the Louisiana Public Service Commission last month ordered its staff to study cramming, after a commissioner reported a dramatic increase in complaints.
At the State Capitol, LeBas’ little bill unleashed, literally, hordes of lobbyists buttonholing lawmakers on behalf of big business. “All the lobbyists should love me because those large corporations, they’ve hired every one of them to fight this bill,” LeBas said.
At least four of the lobbyists refused to discuss the issue for publication. They fingered Janet Britton, chairman of the Louisiana Telecommunications Association, as the one person who could speak publicly for the corporations.
Britton said she is sympathetic to LeBas and consumers like him.
“Nobody should have to pay for something they didn’t subscribe to,” Britton said. “But we have some concerns about implementation” of HB278.
For instance, Britton said, some phone companies have split their various products, so that, say, internet, long distance and television services are provided by different affiliates, each with their own billing systems. Instead of four or five separate bills, it all comes on one monthly bill, she said.
Then there are third parties which provide services, such as collect calls from jails, for which obtaining written authorization would be difficult, Britton said.
“Big Deal. I don’t care if it disrupts the way they do business,” said PSC Chairman Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish. “This has happened to a lot of people in Louisiana. It’s wrong. These bills have gotten way too complex.”
But Campbell doesn’t give HB278 much hope of clearing the House Commerce Committee, which he says is stacked with legislators willing to do whatever business wants. “A consumer bill has little or no chance of getting through there,” Campbell said.
LeBas said he recognizes that he is tilting at windmills. “I can’t help myself. I’m tired of people stealing from other people and using the law to do it,” he said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.