updated 8/18/2005 11:34:50 AM ET 2005-08-18T15:34:50

A new law that's apparently the first in the nation threatens to penalize Internet service providers that fail to warn users that some dial-up numbers can ring up enormous long-distance phone bills even though they appear local.

A long distance call even within the same area code can cost 8 to 12 cents a minute, adding up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars a month.

Companies face fines of up to $500 for each offense, and consumers could pursue civil action claiming an unfair business practice.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said it knows of no similar law elsewhere.

About 700 consumers in the Rochester area alone were billed more than $200,000 combined in unexpected Internet access charges in an eight-month period, while others elsewhere were charged $5,000 to $10,000 more than expected because the Internet connection was left open through a long-distance number.

Consumers, however, must act on the warning that Internet providers must soon post by contacting their phone companies to find out whether a number is truly local.

Many service providers already post such warnings. America Online Inc. agreed to do so in 1989, while the New York Attorney General's Office in 2001 secured similar agreements with 25 New York-based Internet providers including AT&T Worldnet.

"We want to make sure they avoid charges," said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. "We don't collect these charges." He said AOL has updated its caution over the years and will examine New York's new law to make sure AOL is in compliance.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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