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WorldCom

(WCOME)

investors hit the exits in unprecedented numbers Monday, the company sent out pleas to prevent a similar stampede by customers.

The stock plunged 93% as stock in the No. 2 long-distance telephone service provider resumed trading after last week's disclosure of massive accounting irregularities. WorldCom dropped to 6 cents on 800 million shares traded as the company detailed a number of loan defaults and the prospect that its shares will be delisted by Nasdaq on Friday.

Ever since WorldCom said it had overstated profits by $3.8 billion in the last five quarters, investors have been speculating that the company would be forced into bankruptcy. Those fears have only been increasing in the last few days, amid talk that an expanded audit of the company's books will reveal further profit overstatements and that big customers such as the Nasdaq Stock Market will pull their lucrative data-service business from the faltering company.

Some 90% of Nasdaq's communications traffic is handled by WorldCom. A Nasdaq representative was unavailable for immediate comment.

The uncertainty has been a boon for telecom consultants such as Lisa Pierce of Giga Information Group, who says inquiries from WorldCom customers have doubled in the past month. Pierce says the questions generally boil down to whether it's safe to continue with WorldCom or if customers should pursue other options. Investors have speculated since last week that a WorldCom bankruptcy filing could benefit the No. 1 long-distance and data-services player,

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"If WorldCom has one thing going in its favor, it's customer inertia," says Pierce. But she adds that if service gets disrupted, or the account manager gets fired or if it's discovered that a big customer bolts, "it may start a stampede."

Keenly sensitive to issue of customer confidence, WorldCom started faxing its clients "personal notes" to help prolong the inertia. "We are confident that WorldCom will sort out its issues ... and will continue to function as a reliable, efficient communications services company," the memo stated.

But investors don't appear nearly as certain. Monday morning, lenders for WorldCom's $2.65 billion and $1.6 billion senior unsecured credit facilities told the company that "events of default had occurred," WorldCom said in a statement, adding that such a move was expected.

Lenders who hold 51% of the loans for the $2.65 billion facility could vote to speed the date of repayment, and that could require the funds to be repaid immediately, WorldCom said.

The company also said, as expected, that it has received a termination notice for a $1.5 billion program that secures accounts receivables, and that it will use collections on the accounts to pay the $1.2 billion outstanding.

WorldCom shares have lost 99% of their value this year as investors worried about the prospect of a cash squeeze, even before the latest accounting problems were disclosed.