SAN DIEGO - Unlited #'s Printed, Slip-up Affects 11,400; 400,000 Phone Books Out : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Fair use for education and research purpose only Unlisted numbers mistakenly printed Cox slip-up affects 11,400; 400,000 phone books out

By Mike Drummond UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER May 18, 2000

New phone books distributed by Pacific Bell mistakenly contain the phone numbers -- and in some cases, the addresses -- of more than 11,400 San Diego County residents who wanted to be unlisted.

The numbers belong to customers of the Cox Communications phone service, which provided the information to Pacific Bell and to 411 information.

The mistake, which began with a software glitch at Cox, has triggered consumer complaints and raised new alarms about loss of privacy in the digital age.

Pacific Bell on Friday suspended delivery of the new books, but 400,000 copies already have been distributed, mostly in East County, South Bay and parts of the city of San Diego.

Cox phone customers in East and South County are most likely to be affected. Those in North County, Orange County and Santa Barbara were not affected, the company said.

Cox is offering customers a free change of phone number or a free "special privacy package" for a year, similar to the first aid that GTE California offered when it mistakenly allowed unlisted numbers to be published in 1998.

But with with almost one-third of the 1.3 million copies slated for the San Diego market already distributed, Cox's offer struck some as too little, much too late.

"I know it's an honest mistake, but how about some sort of backup system?" said Terry Olsen, a Web designer whose number was listed in the current White Pages in error. "It makes you wonder how else they're treating your personal information."

Cox, which also provides cable and Internet service, conceded that it failed to double-check all the submitted information before it went to print.

As a result of this month's fiasco, Cox said it is now reviewing all information that it submits to PacBell.

PacBell spokesman Brian Brokowski said Cox declined an offer to pay an estimated $3.5 million to reprint all 1.3 million books -- an allegation that Cox denied.

"We've never gotten a formal offer from them," said Dan Novak, Cox's vice president of programming and communications.

He noted that hundreds of thousands of copies already are distributed.

"If reprinting the books solved the problem, we'd go down that path," Novak said.

He said the problem occurred when one or more employees at Cox translated a database of numbers, addresses and names formatted in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program into a program incompatible with PacBell's system.

Cox has been offering residential phone service for nearly two years and has not had a problem feeding information to PacBell in the past.

Although Novak wouldn't specify who formatted the data or exactly how the error occurred, he said, "We took steps right away to fix the problem, prevent it from happening again and to improve the process."

Not everyone is buying it.

"A computer error? Than doesn't make sense," said Patricia, who, fearing for her safety, agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she be identified by only her first name. She said she was "incensed and enraged" that her address is now in the White Pages.

"I don't believe any woman should have their address listed," she added.

Privacy can be a serious safety issue for many people, including "men and women who are being stalked, widows who live alone," said Sgt. Rod Vandiver of the San Diego Police Department.

"If (their numbers) are in the phone book, all of a sudden their lives are turned upside down. What if some weirdo got my daughter's address and phone number? I'd be irritated."

Vandiver said law enforcement officers typically remain unlisted so criminals can't make threatening phone calls to their homes. He had not heard of any San Diego officers affected by the Cox Communications mix-up.

PacBell began distributing the new phone books May 2. Cox customers started complaining May 4, and company officials alerted PacBell the next day.

Six days later, Cox began mailing customers notices of the problem, which included the free offers and a hotline: (888) 755-4269.

"We take our customers' privacy seriously and we're disheartened by this," said Novak, who added that no customers have yet canceled service or threatened a lawsuit over the issue.

Cox officials met with state regulators yesterday to discuss remediation efforts.

California Public Utilities Commission spokeswoman Kyle DeVine said the agency will get involved, but did not say to what extent.

When GTE mistakenly printed the unlisted numbers of 45,000 residents two years ago, the state required the company to track and report all costs associated with fixing the problem. The PUC prohibited GTE from recovering the costs by raising rates.

As part of its remediation, GTE scrambled to retrieve the errant books, and even obtained a restraining order prohibiting people from copying, distributing or using the information in directories the company didn't recover.


-- (, May 18, 2000

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