Cut the cord

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT E-mail Christo­pher El­liott at chris@el­liott.org.

Don’t use a credit card with to­day’s pay phones, or you may find that the cost is way out of line.

The trou­ble started when Tom King’s cell­phone died on his way to a job in­ter­view last year. He saw a pub­lic phone at Washington’s Bain­bridge Is­land Ferry and was re­lieved when a sticker re­as­sured him that he could make a four-minute call for $1, he says.

That didn’t turn out to be en­tirely ac­cu­rate. King made four one-minute calls us­ing his credit card, for which he ex­pected to pay $4. But a few days later, he dis­cov­ered that he’d been charged $14.98 for each con­nec­tion, for a to­tal of nearly $60. “I was shocked,” he says.

Sto­ries like King’s are a cau­tion­ary tale for trav­el­ers. Fewer than 500,000 pub­lic tele­phones re­main in the United States, op­er­ated by a net­work of in­de­pen­dent telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies that set their own rates, which can of­ten be star­tlingly high. Ver­i­zon, the last ma­jor telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions provider of pay phone ser­vices in the United States, left the in­dus­try in 2011 when it agreed to sell al­most all its re­main­ing 50,000 phones.

Sto­ries like King’s have also in­spired one Cal­i­for­nia state se­na­tor to pro­pose a law that would re­quire telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies to dis­close credit-card charges for pay phone calls. Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate Bill 50, which was in­tro­duced in De­cem­ber, would amend a 1993 rule re­quir­ing pay phone op­er­a­tors to dis­close the cost of a call so that it would also in­clude any calls made with a credit or debit card.

Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies are tak­ing ad­van­tage of a “loop­hole” in the rules, says Sen. Ted Lieu. “At the time the law was passed, us­ing a credit or debit card for pay phone calls was un­com­mon, and thus not ad­dressed by the law.”

Con­sumer ad­vo­cate John

If you must use a pay phone, ei­ther use coins or a pre­paid card. You should use your credit or debit card only as a last re­sort.

Mat­tes, an at­tor­ney who has un­suc­cess­fully sued sev­eral com­pa­nies of­fer­ing th­ese pricey calls from pub­lic phones, says that he hopes the leg­is­la­tion will have a rip­ple ef­fect, en­cour­ag­ing other states to adopt sim­i­lar dis­clo­sure re­quire­ments and even­tu­ally com­pelling the fed­eral government to close the loop­hole once and for all. “It would be a long-over­due vic­tory for con­sumers,” he says.

No one knows ex­actly how many trav­el­ers have fallen for th­ese phones, but there have been plenty of re­ports of over­priced phone calls. Last year, sev­eral me­dia out­lets re­ported that U.S. sol­diers in tran­sit through Ger­many were be­ing billed up to $40 for a oneminute phone call home via a com­pany that claimed to be based in Switzer­land. But prob­lems with credit-card calls from pub­lic phones cross my desk with some reg­u­lar­ity, and nor­mally, my in­quiries on be­half of the cus­tomer re­sult in a par­tial or full re­fund.

King, who’s a writer by trade, didn’t take the $60 charge ly­ing down. He tracked the charge to WiMacTel, a com­pany based in Palo Alto, Calif., that of­fers pay phone ser­vices to “in­mate fa­cil­i­ties, pay­phone op­er­a­tors, ho­tels, hos­pi­tals, univer­si­ties/col­leges, lo­cal ex­change com­pa­nies and con­sumers na­tion­wide in the USA and Canada,” ac­cord­ing to its Web site.

“WiMacTel prom­ises cus­tomers that their pay phone sys­tems can make pay phones prof­itable again,” says King. “Well, duh! At nearly $15 a minute, I imag­ine so.”

James MacKen­zie, WiMacTel’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, says that the $1 rate on the pay phone King saw was for coin calls, not credit cards. “Un­for­tu­nately, there is in­suf­fi­cient space on the pay phone to pro­vide all the var­i­ous rates as­so­ci­ated with op­er­a­tor ser­vice calls,” he told me.

In­stead, cus­tomers can opt in to dis­clo­sure through a se­ries of voice prompts when they use WiMacTel’s ser­vice. MacKen­zie ac­knowl­edged that credit-card call rates were sig­nif­i­cantly higher, at­tribut­ing them to the “higher costs” as­so­ci­ated with those types of calls, in­clud­ing the ex­penses in­curred by hav­ing to val­i­date the pay­ment method, billing and col­lec­tion, bad debt, of­fer­ing live op­er­a­tors and credit-card pro­cess­ing fees.

How­ever, af­ter King com­plained, the com­pany low­ered his bill to $22. “Still pretty high for a pay phone call,” King notes.

Ex­ces­sive phone charges used to be one of the sta­ples of my con­sumer ad­vo­cacy prac­tice. Ho­tels con­sid­ered their phone lines a profit cen­ter and would add gen­er­ous sur­charges to their guests’ phone bills, some­times even im­pos­ing fees for lift­ing the phone from the re­ceiver. That’s largely gone now, thanks to the pre­pon­der­ance of cell­phones.

But a smaller threat re­mains. Lieu es­ti­mates that his bill would af­fect roughly 30,000 pub­lic phones in Cal­i­for­nia, lo­cated in places where con­stituents can least af­ford the high charges, in­clud­ing prisons and hos­pi­tals.

How do you avoid th­ese fees? Keep an ex­tra bat­tery handy when you travel, so that if your cell­phone goes dead, you won’t have to re­sort to us­ing a pay phone. If you must use a pay phone — and there are still times when you’ll need to, such as when there’s no re­cep­tion — then buy a pre­paid phone card.

Given the risk of be­ing over­charged by credit card or debit card, you should reach for your plas­tic only as a last re­sort. Try us­ing coins or bills to pay for the call, if pos­si­ble. We’re still a long way from clos­ing the dis­clo­sure loop­hole for cred­it­card calls, and un­til then, it seems, your pay phone calls could cost a lot more than you ex­pect.

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