How'd You Like To Rent This Baby?

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Roberta Sweetow, 67, keeps the hulking black rotary phone, the one she has had since 1964, on her nightstand in case her husband Herb, 74, receives an early-morning call to substitute teach in a Skokie, Ill., high school. Sweetow purchased the phone for $9 last year, after finally noticing a charge buried in her bill every three months: $18 to lease a telephone. "I realized I've paid over $1,000 for a phone I hardly use," she says. "Who in the world rents a telephone?"

Lots, say lawyers representing approximately 44 million customers in a $10 billion class action against AT&T, which administered the post-Ma Bell leasing program from 1984 to 1996, and Lucent, its consumer-products spin-off, which runs the program today. The suit, set for trial Aug. 5 in Illinois, alleges that after the Bell breakup, AT&T failed to adequately inform customers of their options to lease, purchase or return their old telephones. Customers who took no action continued to be charged for renting their phones, a fee recorded on their bill in vague line items like trad rot dsk misc (traditional desktop rotary). Several former AT&T and Lucent employees say the companies pressured them to keep people leasing. AT&T says the suit has no merit and promises to defend itself "vigorously," and on Friday the Federal Communications Commission issued a call for public comment, which could delay the trial. Whatever the outcome, there are still AT&T customers who haven't got the message. Some 860,000 households still lease nearly 1 million rotary phones.