There are," notes A. J. LaBonte, "two utilities people don't like -- the power company and the telephone company."

LaBonte has chosen to take on one of them, and it so happens that he has the experience to do it. A retired New England Telephone Co. executive, LaBonte started Telesearch, a small company that scans business telephone bills for overcharges, and then arranges for refunds from Ma Bell. His company is one of dozens nationwide that helps businesses recoup overcharges by auditing specific services. While Telesearch concentrates only on telephone bills, other companies focus on everything from airline tickets and rental car invoices to energy bills and health insurance costs.

So far the three-year-old Manchester, N.H., based company has performed 400 separate telephone audits and collected $350,000 in overcharges. Only 5% of those 400 audits were mistake-free. "On every account that's billed $1,000 for local equipment and lines," LaBonte says, "roughly 15% to 20% of that billing will be incorrect."

Telesearch focuses almost exclusively on local telephone service and equipment expenses rather than long-distance bills. The most common errors are the double billing of fees for extension telephones and charges for nonexistent equipment. "You can have only one speakerphone on each line," LaBonte says. "We often find as many as four speakerphones per line." Other common mistakes by American Telephone & Telegraph Information Systems include charging a company for key sets (phones that have several lines on them) rather than for a single extension line; forgetting to change the billing when a switchboard is downgraded from a more expensive model to a cheaper one; and continuing to charge a company for extension lines that have been removed. Telesearch charges nothing up front for its service; its fee is 50% of the amount refunded to its clients.

Once the errors are identified and refunds are demanded, Telesearch and its clients are more or less put on hold. "It takes us anywhere from seven weeks to six months to get our money," says the 59-year-old LaBonte, who spent 30 years at New England Telephone before retiring. "Ma Bell is slow as a snail in paying up."