Monday, November 30, 2009

$45 to receive a phone call!

There was a time when collect phone calls (particularly from people who were at pay phones and did not have a lot of coins) were quite common.

With the ubiquity of cellphones, both pay phones and collect calling are fading fast.

There are many teenagers who have never used either -- but collect calls can still be made, at a very high price. Most collect calls are probably made from prison.

Pat Devine of Toluca Lake, California assumed that her collect-call days were behind her. Like most people, she carries a cellphone.

But when she was running late for a beauty salon appointment, Devine realized that her cellphone battery had died. She didn't want to be rude and leave her hairstylist waiting. So she looked around for a pay phone.

It was hard to find one. Most of the big phone companies have gotten out of the pay phone business.

There are now about 700,000 pay phones in operation nationwide, compared with nearly 277 million wireless subscribers. Most pay phones are owned by local businesses, such as gas stations.

Devine finally found a phone but it ate up all of her quarters without completing a call. Desparate, Devine pressed zero and was connected to an operator. Devine said she'd like to make a collect call and provided the number.

Barbara James runs the Fandango Salon in Silver Lake. She said that when Devine's collect call came in, a salon employee didn't hesitate to accept the charges.

There was no indication from the operator that this would be an expensive call. Devine was calling from only about a mile away and the call lasted roughly three minutes.

When the salon's AT&T bill arrived, it included a charge for $45.09 from Network Communications International Corp., a Texas company that says it's the largest privately held provider of collect-call services for pay phones, prisons, hospitals and hotels.

NCIC charged her $37.40 for the short local call, $4.74 in regulatory fees and taxes, and an extra $2.95 "billing cost recovery fee".

Pay phones were deregulated in 1996.

AT&T says it might charge two cents per minute for a local call made from about a mile away, albeit without an operator.

An NCIC customer-service supervisor said that Devine's call consisted of a nearly $25 "connection charge" and a rate of about $2.50 per minute.

NCIC provides collect-call services on behalf of pay phone owners and typically kicks back more than half of the revenue to the owner.

After James got her phone bill, she called NCIC to complain and about $20 was deducted from the total.

"It's like they were expecting me to complain," James said. (info from the Los Angeles Times)

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