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Watch for hang-ups when changing phone companies

Donald Duvernoy and his daughter, Debra Kiehn, who share a two-family home in Syosset, N.Y., wanted to save some money by switching to the Internet-based phone provider Vonage.

Now they have only regrets. But there's one thing Kiehn no longer has: the phone number she held for 25 years.

Kiehn switched from Verizon to Vonage and faced so many problems that she decided to switch back within days. But after facing delays in transferring her number back, she just gave up and got a new phone number.

Callers trying to reach her longtime phone number now hear this message: "The number you have dialed is not in service. Please check the number and try again."

Kiehn said she has had to alert more than 100 people -- friends, family members, doctors, dentists, officials at her son's school -- since she got a new phone number in September.

Their experience highlights the potential pitfalls in transferring phone numbers along with the downside of Internet-based phone services, which lack the consumer protections of traditional, regulated phone service.

While Federal Communications Commission guidelines call for transfers of four days for traditional phone companies such as Verizon, the FCC doesn't regulate the matter for Internet-based phone services such as Vonage.

Tom Maguire, senior vice president at Verizon, said the company usually transfers numbers in three days. Vonage spokeswoman Kate Policastro said Vonage processes transfers in 10 days on average to and from major carriers such as Verizon.

Dozens of Internet-based phone services -- also known as voice-over-Internet Protocol, or VoIP -- connect calls via high-speed Internet connections, with unlimited calling plans starting at about $25 a month, luring millions of customers with the low fixed price.

Vonage, based in Holmdel, N.J., boasted more than 2 million customers at the end of September. But many customers complain in online forums of poor customer support. The company lost 2.6 percent of its subscribers in the third quarter, up from 2.3 percent in the second quarter.

Duvernoy, 74, who had been a customer of Cablevision's Optimum Voice phone service, and Kiehn, 44, who had been with Verizon, decided to get Vonage accounts in August with the $24.99-a-month unlimited plan. That includes calls to Ireland, where Duvernoy has a grandson.

But problems began soon after the phone equipment arrived via mail. "Before I even went to install it, I got an e-mail saying that they [Vonage] sent my equipment to somebody else and somebody else's equipment to me," Duvernoy said.

A customer service representative promised to fix the problem. But when Duvernoy called later, he said, no one he spoke with knew about the issue.

After numerous fruitless calls and e-mails, Duvernoy and Kiehn decided to return to their previous phone services.

That was easy for Duvernoy, because Cablevision hadn't yet transferred his phone number to Vonage. But in his daughter's case, Verizon already had transferred the number to Vonage.

Duvernoy said he called Verizon to switch Kiehn's phone number back. Unable to retrieve the number from Vonage, Verizon canceled two appointments to reinstate her service, Duvernoy said.

"Then they called back and said, 'We don't know when we're going to be able to do this. Vonage won't give us the number,' " Duvernoy recalled.

Maguire, whose job at Verizon includes overseeing phone number transfers to and from other companies, including Vonage, said the process is usually automated. But in this case, Verizon had to call Vonage to prod the company to release the number after receiving the customer's transfer request Aug. 21.

Meanwhile, Kiehn lacked landline service while awaiting the transfer.

Policastro said she doesn't have information on the transfer because a third-party company, Focal, handles the switches for Vonage. Policastro said Vonage is working to improve customer service. Focal did not return phone calls.

On Sept. 6, after failing to get his daughter's number back, Duvernoy canceled Vonage and switched her to Optimum Voice, with a new phone number.

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