Beware the Lowly PayPhone!


Forgive my absence, faithful readers.  I have been at a professional convention (which was lovely).  Except for this (originally published at Blogcritics.org

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Caveat emptor: buyer beware the lowly pay phone. Any of you use one of these lately? I have, and it’s certainly not my parents’ pay phone! And I don’t mean in a good way.

Last week, I had a lovely time in the Catskills attending a convention. Beautiful weather, mountains and trees surrounding a fadedly elegant old resort (minus the equally faded Borscht Belt comedians). The only fly in the metaphorical ointment was virtual absence of cell phone coverage for several large providers, including Verizon, my personal poison. It wasn’t that resort was so rustic, after all it boasted free Wi-Fi (from the lobby, anyway), which prevented me from going into an ugly state of email withdrawal at the very least. But no cell coverage. Go figure!

Calls from the room exacted a typically high connect charge (as hotel calls often do), so I never even considered using it, and with each family member equipped with their own cellular phone (aren’t we a modern family?), who needs an old-fashioned calling card? I’ve been out trudging waterfalls in the middle of the Canadian Rockies with a perfect five-bar cell signal, five miles from nowhere. And here we were two hours from the Big Apple and no cell service?

So, with no choice and a need to contact my husband, I ultimately decided to make a credit card call from the lobby pay phone. After “direct-dialing” home, his two cell phones (no we’re not decadent, his work-issued Blackberry is the 24/7 noose…er…tether…that keeps him ever in touch with his office) and his work number, I finally left a voice mail message, telling him that we would have to communicate via email only (and I had only sporadic email access during the day).

I had some very exciting news to relate to him the next morning the sort that can’t wait for email. (And no, it’s none of your business as to the nature of the news!) So, I dialed his phone number, only to have the charge declined by my credit card company. Thinking I mis-entered my card number I did it again, only to have the charge once again declined. A bit shaken (I’ve never had my Gold Card declined, and for this, a mere phone call?), I finally borrowed someone’s AT&T cell phone and reached my husband. I checked my account online to find that everything appeared OK, and thought no more about I climbed into the limo I’d hired to take me back to New York City. It was then that I realized I’d intended to charge the cost of the limo to my now-discredited credit card.

As soon as I regained connectivity with the outside world (about two miles from the resort—and, believe me, never have three bars on my Blackberry been so welcome), I phoned my card company to find out why the charge had been declined. Informed that a pay phone provider was trying to charge my card $30.00, the credit card company flagged the attempt as potentially fraudulent. Something had triggered the alert system and they put a hold on my card to prevent further use of my identity or the card. (Yes, they released my card, so I was able to pay my $200 limo charge and make my flight—which, since it was delayed six hours anyway, would not have been too much of a stretch in any case.)

Now I was even more unnerved. Thirty bucks? Before I’d even connected to a call? Something did not seem right about this, as it did not seem right to my credit card company. Checking my bill online the next day, I now noticed the four attempted (one successful, one minute) phone calls. I had been charged more than $20.00 for each attempted call, although only one call lasted more than four seconds. Voice mail had picked up the other three calls (I hung up before leaving messages).

Yeah. You heard right. Twenty dollars! Each. “Where was she calling?” you might ask. Pakistan? Iraq? Antarctica? No, I was calling Chicago. I was calling from New York to Chicago. Yes. Twenty dollars for a non-call. And one 40 second call. Seriously.  Obviously, I disputed the charges with my credit card company, and then proceded to call the pay phone provider.

“Yes, I see the calls right here,” said a cheerful customer service rep with a Texas drawl (the company is based in Texas). “Four calls; all less than a minute apparently. But they were all connected.”

“To a voice mail,” I interrupted, ignoring for the moment that she was acknowledging the fact that I had been charged $20 per fraction of a minute for a phone call.

“Well, you were connected. We charge a $15 connect fee and then the other five was for the time you were connected.” Which, I reminded her was less than a minute.

After she suggested (generously, apparently) that they go halvsies (my word, not theirs) with them and pay just half the charges, I told her that I was simply calling to register a complaint at their exorbitant scheme, and that they would hear from my credit card company, the FCC, my Senator and whoever else I could rally to my side. (Kidding about the Senator, but I will phone his office to discuss pay phone regulation!)

Never mind the deregulated and dubious legality of charging $15 to connect to another line via pay phone (I can’t even begin to think that this is in any way ethical practice.) There was no warning (which I know they are supposed to give), no caveat emptor; just a “bong” and a request to tap in my credit card information.

Legalized mugging, is what it’s been called by other victims at websites like the Ripoff Report. Preying on the weak, desperate and cell-phone deprived, who often are making an emergency call home, they await the next innocent victim. It’s a racket, and its worthwhile stopping. For me, it’s an expensive annoyance; an $80 argument. For other victims, this practice is predatory and completely indefensible. My next stop? The Federal Communications Commission. And the appropriate House and Senate subcommittees. Something simply has to be done.

For now, should you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure you ask for the operator directly and have that person clarify all charges. Because they’re not necessarily posted on the phone’s small-print instruction placard. And it’s the only way to protect yourself.

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