POTENTIAL Internet users should beware of pitfalls when dealing with some local Internet service providers, the Consumer Council warned yesterday. A council report said the market had seen a more than 20-fold increase in the number of providers in the past two years. At the end of 1993, only two commercial providers existed in Hong Kong, with about 1,000 users. Now, more than 40 companies are licensed by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority to provide Internet access, and have an estimated 20,000 users. The council warned new users to ensure providers had a licence to operate, known as a Public Non-exclusive Telecommunications Service licence. Hongkong Telecom has a charge of nine cents a minute for every telephone line used to provide public access to their networks. But some providers did not tell users their basic charges excluded this surcharge. Of the 26 providers covered in the report, the basic charges of 13 did not include the surcharge. Several did not inform users before registration, said council research officer Wilson Cheng Po-wa. He said at least two providers had been operating for several months without a licence. Users whose providers were unlicensed could face disconnection from the Internet without warning. On March 3, seven local providers were shut down by the Commercial Crimes Bureau for operating without licences. While all providers surveyed claimed to maintain support hotlines, few answered the phone and could rarely solve problems. 'Some of the claims made by providers are quite meaningless,' council chief information and publication officer Kenneth So Wai-sang said.