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Bernie Ebbers lost the appeal to his conviction and will now spend 25 years behind bars.

That's reassuring except that, in my experience, his ghost lives on at MCI (formerly WorldCom). The tentacles of those evildoers have reached all the way to the cul-de-sac in Lafayette where I happen to live. To me, it feels like we've been hit by something coming from the Aryan Brotherhood -- those convicts who manage to run things like dog-breeding businesses from inside prison walls.

If you're retired, and unfamiliar with the anarchy that now pervades the nation's phone system, my story could amount to a public service on your behalf.

In my case, it all started innocently enough. We once had a business phone at home that we removed more than a year ago. Buried in our regular house phone bill was the cost for this business phone that continued for about 12 months beyond the disconnection before we realized it.

We stopped paying it, and our entire phone system was turned off. For about five days, including over a weekend, we had no phone service at all while we struggled to reach someone who had the authority to turn things back on.

Bear in mind, we spend about $3,000 a year in home phone service, and this was about a $15 monthly charge that we had been paying.

About the same time, coincidentally, our phone suddenly had so much static that it was impossible to use. Over several weeks, we went back and forth with MCI, which claimed that it was not their wires but the wires inside our house.

We actually talked to someone on the phone at MCI (using our cell phones, of course) who finally was knowledgeable enough to walk us through the problem and some possible solutions. Out in the garage, we disconnected the fax machine line, and this solved the problem, except that now we had no working fax machine. That was the least of our concerns.

Prior to this "quick fix," we were told that we could have an insurance policy for $180 that would pay for any work that needed to be done inside the house. As all this was happening, we idly threatened to move our service to AT&T. At this suggestion, the voice at the other end of the line said that they would give us the insurance at no charge. We accepted.

A month later, the static problem resurfaced, even though the fax machine was still disconnected. My spouse, Fran, went ballistic -- a warm-up, incidentally, to what was to come. This time, we agreed that the problem could have something to do with our house wiring. Our house was built in 1962 and perhaps some of the original wiring is still part of the system.

The minimum cost of an hour of service by an MCI technician working inside the house is $180, but we didn't care now, because we were being covered by the complementary insurance.

My spouse waited around on the appointed day for the MCI technician to come, and she noticed an SBC truck (apparently the company hadn't changed the logo to the company's new name, AT&T) at the end of the street, where an SBC engineer was working on a central switching station.

Thinking he might be connected in some way to our problem, Fran trudged up the street, told him our sad story, and asked what he would do in our situation. He said, first of all, that our problem is an epidemic that is happening everywhere. In response, MCI has the worst service reputation, and AT&T, from his perspective, has the best.

The MCI technician finally showed up and fixed everything -- except the fax. We don't want to push our luck.

End of story for some happy campers? No. We just received a bill from MCI for $635 for what amounted to about two hours of work that was supposed to be insured. This sets in motion another hour or two on the phone trying to argue with these people and dealing with the very real threat that our phone service will be turned off yet again if we refuse to pay.

Parenthetically, the SBC engineer up the street had said that changing carriers is not an option when you are in the middle of a dispute.

If you're choosing or changing phone service, give it some careful consideration. A company that is struggling financially, such as MCI, will be desperate to improve its bottom line to serve its creditors today. It will worry about its customers tomorrow, knowing that for now the company has inertia on its side.

If your years of trouble-free telephone experience go back to the days when you picked up the phone and a live operator asked, "Number please?" you will find today's climate a huge challenge when you have a problem.

Meanwhile, I'm on my way to the California Public Utilities Commission to see how well my tax dollars have been working to protect me from what Bernie Ebbers has spawned.

You're wondering about my wife? Talk about dog breeding from prison. Ebbers has created the "pit bull of telephone consumers."

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