California takes lead on trying to end pay phone price gouging [Virginian - Pilot]
(Virginian - Pilot Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) THE TROUBLE started when Tom King's cellphone died on his way to a job interview last year. He saw a public phone and was relieved when a sticker reassured him that he could make a four-minute call for $1.
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.
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.
Verizon, the last major telecommunications provider of pay phone services in the United States, left the industry in 2011.
Stories like King's have inspired one California state senator to propose a law that would require telecommunications companies to disclose credit-card charges for pay phone calls. The bill 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 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.
King, who's a writer by trade, didn't take the $60 charge lying down. He tracked the charge to a company called WiMacTel, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
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.
However, after King complained, the company lowered his bill to $22.
"Still pretty high for a pay phone call," King notes.
Excessive phone charges at hotels used to be one of the staples of my consumer advocacy practice. That's largely gone now, thanks to 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 cellphone battery handy. If you must use a pay phone - and there are still times when you'll need to - such as when there's no reception - buy a prepaid phone card.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate. Email him at chriselliott.org.
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