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When Marguerite Miles received a promotional trial disk from America Online two years ago, she figured she would see what all of the hoopla was about on the Internet. She popped it into her computer, signed on and surfed the net. A month later the Port Richey woman received her phone bill with $500 in long-distance charges. “I specifically told [AOL] I would not take anything that was long-distance,” said Miles, who believes she was intentionally mislead by the country’s largest online service provider. Miles is now the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa that seeks class action status. The suit alleges that AOL did not provide local access numbers to the area she was calling from and failed to notify her that the calls she was making were long-distance. Lance Harke of Hector & Harke in Miami, who filed the suit on Miles’ behalf, says she is not alone. He points to newspaper articles in USA Today and the Kansas City Star in which AOL users were hit with hundreds of dollars in long-distance phone bills because they were unable to access local numbers. In one case, an 11-year-old girl ran up a $3,190 phone bill using AOL. However, Harke believes this is the first such suit against AOL. “AOL knows or can readily determine when you sign on whether or not there is a local access number and they purposefully hide that information from you in order to make a sale,” Harke said. Not so, says AOL spokesman Rich D’Amato. “We could not, with any certainty, state that this number will be local for you.” In addition, AOL contends it’s not responsible for long-distance charges because it notifies users through “myriad information” that if they don’t know whether a number they are calling is local or long-distance, they should check with their phone company. “In the number selection window there is a bold red notation that says please be sure that you are selecting a local access number,” D’Amato said. David Cassell, editor of AOLWatch, an online newsletter that’s highly critical of AOL, said it’s typical of the company to pass the buck. “This shows a real disregard for their customers. Instead of fixing it, they add text to their screens saying it’s not their problem,” Cassell said. Miles contends that she called AOL to find out which numbers she should use to access service. One she knew was long-distance, but she wasn’t sure about the other two. “When you are talking to a representative and you are telling them what you want, you expect to get a correct answer,” Miles said. “He misled me. That’s the bottom line.” The suit alleges, among other things, violations of the computer fraud and abuse act and Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, misleading advertising and fraud by omission. It seeks unspecified damages and attorneys fees. Ironically, the claim parallels a suit filed against Miles by her former employer. She was sued in 1998 by Manorcare Health Services. It was alleged that while working as a nurse for the company, she was accidentally overpaid more than $57,000 due to a computer glitch. Instead of paying her $19.59 an hour, the computer spit out checks for $195.90 an hour. Miles collected the money for five months before the mistake was discovered. Miles at first claimed she didn’t know she had been overpaid, said Manorcare’s lawyer Robert Stern of Trenam Kemker in Tampa. Then, he said, she refused to pay, so Manorcare sued. The case has been settled and Miles is making $400 monthly payments as part of her restitution, Stern said. Miles declined to discuss the suit. Harke said his client’s past is irrelevant. “She got victimized here,” Harke said. “One has nothing to do with the other.”

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