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Consumer Reports

Rooting out phone-bill errors is company's forte | (KRT) If you think your monthly phone bill is confusing, consider the nightmare faced by large corporations.

There's a multinational bank based in New York that receives close to 3,000 phone bills - each month. And that's pretty typical.

Sorting out the various fees, taxes, taxes on fees, charges, and tolls, and organizing it all so it makes sense is a job Greg Carr relishes.

He's the founder and CEO of Teldata Control, an East Rutherford, N.J.-based company that specializes in keeping tabs - and finding errors - on phone bills for some of the nation's largest corporations.

Consider the case of a large software company that shut down two of its facilities and moved out completely.

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Teldata Control's audit team found the company was still getting billed for $1.7 million in telecommunications charges it never incurred - two years after it shut those offices.

Teldata Control notified the software company and eventually recovered their money from the phone company.

Many mistakes, it turns out, result from bills being sent to company offices that have closed. In part, those mistakes are made because corporate locations are not linked to phone numbers on the actual bill.

Unbelievable as it may sound, there are companies still getting phone bills for offices in the World Trade Center, said Joe Basili, Teldata Control's vice president of marketing.

Basili won't reveal the names of Teldata Control clients due to non-disclosure agreements, except to say they are Fortune 500 companies and government agencies.

Carr founded Teldata Control in 1988 after working at Sprint as part of a transition team, US Telecom. It was a time of turmoil in the telecommunications industry, just a few years after the court-ordered breakup of AT&T.

"Everybody's billing was terrible; it was a mess," said Carr, 42. "It was more important to keep the network up and running than deal with the billing problems," he said.

Carr decided to branch out on his own, starting Teldata Control in his Weehawken, N.J., apartment with personal savings.

Since opening its doors, Teldata Control has enjoyed average growth rates of 25 percent per year.

Carr has 225 full-time employees and offices in East Rutherford, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

He's also in one of the only niches in the beleaguered telecommunications industry enjoying double-digit growth.

Part of that is due to the economic downturn. Big companies have been looking to trim costs, and phone bills are a place to start.

And many large corporations don't have the resources to scrutinize their bills every month.

"It's a headache; these companies are receiving thousands of bills," said Gartner Group analyst Al Cullen. "You need both financial skills and telecommunications skills to perform these functions."

For most of its major customers, Teldata Control works to consolidate and streamline the massive numbers of bills they receive.

The majority of Teldata Control's clients spend more than $1 million a month on telecommunications ranging from simple phone calls to complicated data services.

And even though they do receive some paper phone bills (arriving packed in boxes, because they have so many pages), most billing these days is done electronically.

In either case, Carr's army of telecommunications experts pore over the fine print, working to decipher odd charges and pinpoint inconsistencies. And they find them.

Cullen estimates that for every $1 million spent by a company on phone charges, there's a 90 percent chance that 10 percent to 15 percent of the billing is in error. That translates to as much as $150,000 a month in bad charges.

Many of those mistakes are due to the enormous complexity of telecommunications products, the speed at which companies such as AT&T and Verizon introduce new services, and the vast computerized billing systems behind them.

"It's some of the most complex billing out there," said Basili.

Although unearthing fraud and abuse is only a part of their main business, Teldata Control does uncover a lot of shady phone charges.

In one case, their experts discovered a large New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company racking up $30,000 in monthly charges. Closer scrutiny revealed a group of employees dialing a long-distance number to check their home e-mail and leaving the phone line connected all day.

Calls made in the wee hours also draw attention, including one recent case at a Manhattan brokerage where Teldata Control noticed $3,000 a month in calls from an employee's phone to a 900 betting line - all placed after work hours.

Teldata Control and a handful of other major players go after a market Cullen estimates at about $1 billion annually.

A notch below these industry leaders are many start-ups entering the game, said Cullen.

Carr says that in the booming 1990s, he was tempted to take his company public and went so far as to discuss the possibility with bankers. But he hesitated, and now he's glad he did.

"I'm very reluctant to spend money unless I've made money," he said.

And it looks like Teldata Control has a good shot at continuing its rapid growth.

Telecommunications services are becoming more, not less, complicated.

And for Teldata Control, said Carr, "the more technological change, the better."

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© 2003, The Record Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services