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San Francisco Superior Court Judge Alfred Chiantelli on Thursday approved a settlement that enjoins MCI WorldCom Communications Inc. from changing a customer’s long-distance provider without permission. “This is a pretty good settlement,” Chiantelli said. The lawsuit, filed by the California Department of Justice and the state Public Utilities Commission, accused MCI of unfair business practices and false advertising. Under terms of the settlement, MCI will pay the state $8.5 million to reimburse it for the investigation costs that led to the litigation. It also prohibits MCI from “slamming” — changing a long-distance provider without permission — and from “cramming,” or billing for unauthorized add-on services. “Under this judgment, MCI will have to stop the deceptive practices that resulted in thousands of complaints from California consumers,” said PUC President Loretta Lynn. PUC spokeswoman Monique Steele said the lawsuit only dealt with the telecommunication firm’s business practices and not with customer overcharges. She said pending class action litigation may address those claims. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose office was prepared to take the case to trial, said the settlement will protect customers from unscrupulous companies who use deceptive marketing means. “We expect this judgment will serve as an industry model and a wake-up call to other long-distance providers that we will not tolerate slamming, cramming or other underhanded business practices,” Lockyer said. The settlement allows the state to monitor MCI for compliance purposes and to ensure it changes its advertising practices. MCI also agreed to quickly resolve customer billing complaints and bars the company from attempting to collect bills still in dispute. The phone company must also disclose in a clear manner its restrictions on rates for certain services, its mandatory monthly minimum fee, directory assistance charges, and restrictions on such marketing techniques as frequent flier mileage. To ensure that all its workers understand the terms of the settlement, MCI must train its customer representatives so they can answer quickly and clearly questions from the public. Chiantelli said the case was set for trial on Feb. 25, but litigants asked for more time. “I postponed it a week,” the judge said. “You just keep the pressure on.”

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