Qwest users upset by opt-out hang-ups
Seattle Times consumer-affairs reporter
Irked that they could not get through to a toll-free number set up by Qwest to "opt out" of a customer-information-sharing plan, scores of Puget Sound area consumers complained yesterday.
It marked the third day of frustration, with some consumers questioning Qwest's sincerity about its offer to protect privacy.
The Seattle Times and the state attorney general's consumer-protection division each received dozens of phone calls and e-mails from irritated customers. They were upset that they could not get through on Qwest's toll-free line (877-628-3732), or had trouble submitting their privacy preferences over a Qwest Web site (www.qwest.com/cpni/).
"The first Monday of each month is typically the busiest, and the first Monday of the year it is doubly busy," said Qwest spokesman Steve Hammack.
He said the company was committed to its offer to let consumers withdraw from the company's marketing plan, which would automatically share customer-account information within Qwest's business divisions and among its marketing partners, including Microsoft.
Yesterday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.- based privacy advocacy group, called on Qwest to suspend its "opt-out" plan, describing it as unfair and contending it "needlessly jeopardizes the privacy of your customers."
Hammack said he had not seen the letter, which was sent directly to Afshin Mohebbi, president and chief operating officer of Denver-based Qwest. But Hammack defended the company's plan to proceed with the "opt-out" strategy.
He said a survey by a marketing-research firm showed that 85 percent of customers "trust the phone company to protect their information" and that they want to be told "if there are information services that will benefit" them.
Under a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1998, consumers had to explicitly "opt in" before telecommunications companies could share customer information. Qwest successfully challenged the rule in federal court, and last fall the FCC adopted a clarifying rule in line with the court decision.
At the same time, however, the FCC said it was working on a new rule that would be faithful to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required keeping customer information confidential, and would also abide by the court decision overturning the agency's original rule. Nearly 40 state attorneys general, including Washington's, have voiced support for protecting the privacy rights of consumers.
Yesterday, FCC spokesman Mike Balmoris said the period to comment on the new rule has expired but that consumers wishing to express an opinion can still do so over the Web, at www.fcc.gov, by e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail, FCC, 445 12th St. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20554, attn: Consumer Information Bureau.
Some consumers who got through on Qwest's toll-free number complained that Qwest's customer-service representatives were belligerent, demanded more personal information and tried to sell them more services.
Hammack said that in some cases representatives might have been trying to verify the caller's identity. He said it was news to him that Qwest customer-service representatives were asking customers to buy additional Qwest services.
Numerous consumers reported that the toll-free number rang and rang with no answer, or that they received busy signals or got a message that they had reached a nonworking number. Consumers also reported difficulty trying to opt out over the Web, saying they received various error messages. Hammack said such complaints were under investigation.
Yesterday, Hammack said he could not say how many consumers were choosing to opt out, but he maintained they represent a "very small percentage of our customer base."
He also noted that "banks and finance companies have been doing this (the "opt-out" approach) for some time, and the rest of the telecom industry are expected to begin notifying their customers of the same this month."
Hammack predicted that call volumes would decrease as the days go by. He said the toll-free number remains the "quickest way" to opt out of Qwest's marketing plan. He said it was in operation from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Pacific time zone.
Hammack also said customers could call Qwest's general customer-service number at 1-800-244-1111 to opt out.
Even though the notice to customers, included with their December bills, asked them to declare their preference within 30 days, the company will not put its new marketing plan into effect for two additional weeks, Hammack said. And he said customers could choose to opt out at any time after the 30-day period.
Peter Lewis can be reached at 206-464-2217 or email@example.com.