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Billing Inquiry

How to Lower the Price of a $4.61 Phone Call--Maybe--in Only a Few Hours of Your Spare Time

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I find an error buried in my phone bill, back on page one of section four, beyond Telebriefs, near the introductory announcement about the exciting new Ameritech Master Card "with the power of a calling card," which I'll soon be hearing about in the mail--or if I can't wait that long I can call an 800 number to get the details immediately.

I'm sure it's an error, it has to be. It's a charge of $4.61 for a four-minute call that I made from a pay phone in New Jersey a few weeks back. Had I used coins instead of my convenient Illinois Bell calling card (an old issue without the power of a Master Card), I'm sure the charge would have been about 60 cents, tops. Admittedly, the call was between two different area codes, but the actual distance spanned was so insignificant that I could have seen the house I was calling on a clear day, if there was such a thing in Jersey.

I deliberate whether to make a billing inquiry, as it's known in the trade. I know from checking into a similar error on last month's bill that I shouldn't bother the people at Illinois Bell. They're not responsible for the charge. In fact, there's a message right on the page: "IMPORTANT INFORMATION: This portion of your bill is provided as a service to the company identified above. There is no connection between Illinois Bell and this company."

The company in this case is Zero Plus Dialing, Inc. Before dialing the 800 number I check to see if Zero Plus is the same company that overcharged me last month, when I was billed $4.60 for a five-minute local call in New Jersey. It's not. That was Operator Assistance Network. By calling OAN's 800 number, I managed to arrange a credit that was supposed to appear on this month's bill. I now note that it has not appeared. I also see that I made several other calls handled by Zero Plus Dialing and that the charges were reasonable, relatively speaking.

I decide to call, and I get Colleen. I tell her there's an error. Colleen's sigh indicates that she has little patience for any schlub whose life is so empty that he has time to read all the way to section four of his phone bill.

Colleen launches into a spiel similar to the one the OAN customer-service guy gave me last month. But her tone gives her away: it's so thick with boredom it's clear that her entire job all day every day must consist of nothing but dealing with schlubs who have time to read their phone bills. Zero Plus Dialing, she says, is not a phone company that owns pay phones or sets rates, merely a "clearinghouse" for a number of phone companies that do.

I try to assure Colleen that I'm not your everyday phone-bill-reading schlub, that I have at least a vague understanding of deregulatory reforms that have made it possible for almost anybody to own his very own phone company. Nonetheless, her phone company's number is the one listed on this particular page of my phone bill.

Colleen informs me that rates vary dramatically from pay phone to pay phone. I tell her I've been charged $4.61 for a four-minute call, a variance that I'm certain is out of line, even by deregulation-era sucker standards. While she accesses the bill on her computer, I elaborate on the proximity of the two phones--trying to convey that I could have shouted to the person I was calling had it not been for the roar of trucks hauling toxic waste down the highway.

Colleen finds the charge. She says that in Jersey companies are allowed to charge up to a dollar a minute.

"But Colleen," I say, "this charge is--"

"It's Connie!" Her truculence can only be explained by prior acquaintance with a very bad Colleen. A sister on death row, I imagine, who murdered their parents, perhaps leaving Connie to support her siblings on her salary from Zero Plus Dialing.

"I'm sorry. Connie." I decide not to cop the static on the ZPD 800 line as an excuse for my inattention. Instead I repeat the point I began to raise back when I knew Connie as Colleen. "You said companies could charge up to a dollar a minute. But this is $4.61 for four minutes. That's more than--"

"I just say that," she says. "Companies can charge up to a dollar a minute and above."

"I see. So there's no ceiling on charges?"

Connie mutters something to the effect that I'm trying to put words in her mouth. I explain that all I'm asking her to do is tell me, if she can, who owns the pay phone. Then I can call that company and bug her counterpart directly.

Connie puts me on hold while she looks it up. I expect her to get back on the line and reveal that it's John Gotti Pay Phones Inc.

She doesn't. She says it's a company named Call Technology, which I assume is a subsidiary of John Gotti Pay Phones Inc. I ask if she has a number for them.

Connie says that the official customer-service representative for Call Technology is...Zero Plus Dialing.

"So then I'm talking to the right person."

"That's right." I wonder if she just now discovered that herself or whether she knew it all along and was stalling for time, hoping to wear me down.

I resist the temptation to ask Connie if she has given any thought to starting her own phone company. I remind myself to be patient. I think about the sister on death row. I ask if there's anything she can do.

She says she can turn it over to "Investigations." They'll determine if I'm entitled to a rate adjustment.

I tell her I'd like her to do that, even though it sounds like a lot of paperwork for her. At least it would keep her off the phone for a few minutes.

She cautions that it will take seven days for Investigations to contact me with their verdict. I'm dubious that I'll hear from them in my lifetime.

Before hanging up, I ask her if there's any way--beyond the unthinkably quaint method of pumping coins into a pay phone--I can avoid paying Mob Bell rates, and she says I should punch in my calling card code.

"My code?"

She explains, in a tone suggesting that she thought everybody knew this, that long-distance carriers have override codes that their subscribers can punch in to bypass the vicissitudes, including the racketeer rates, of fly-by-night service providers. I tell her my calling card is from Illinois Bell and she gives me what she says is my override code. I wonder briefly why Illinois Bell hasn't provided me with this valuable information, but it occurs to me that there may already have been a story in Telebriefs about it.

Despite Connie's late-inning heroics, when I hang up I have no confidence that any credit from ZPD will appear on my bill anytime soon. I decide to take advantage of my bill-inquiring frame of mind and call Illinois Bell. I want to find out about this code business (Connie didn't sound all that certain about that number). I also want to ask about the phantom credit from OAN that is not on my bill. Most of all I want to find out what happens if I don't pay my ZPD charge until Rocco and the boys from Investigations are done giving me my fair hearing.

I get Patricia, who, by contrast to Connie, sounds so cheerful and efficient that I'm almost giddy to be speaking to someone from a real phone company again. Patricia, I suspect, might actually respect a schlub who takes the time to read all 23 pages of his phone bill. Maybe she's married to one.

Patricia also is informative. She informs me, for example, that Illinois Bell does not have an override code. That is the province of long-distance carriers, and Illinois Bell is not one of those. Unfortunately, due to deregulation regulations, she is not at liberty to influence my decision about long-distance carriers and therefore cannot discuss them. I reveal that I'm an MCI guy and assure her that I'll be sure to get my override code from them next time we have occasion to talk (this will be soon, since only today I received a packet of information that described all the benefits of my new enclosed MCI Aadvantage card but regrettably did not include the card itself).

I give Patricia the short version of my experience with Zero Plus. I make a special effort not to be nasty, because unlike Connie, who I imagine resides in some distant place, like maybe Pueblo, Colorado, Patricia lives in the area and knows my address. Like Connie, Patricia sighs, but her sigh, I can tell, is closer to empathy than to contempt.

Patricia explains that Illinois Bell is not responsible for the charge that ZPD is not responsible for. They are, in effect, merely the collections agent for another collections agent that happens to be a customer of theirs. I point out that I also am a customer of theirs and in this case it appears that ZPD, on behalf of one of their customers, has committed larceny, albeit on a not-so-grand scale, against someone who has been a card-carrying Illinois Bell customer long before ZPD was a blip on Ronald Reagan's addled brain.

Patricia understands the conflict. I tell her I know she doesn't make policy, she's simply in the unenviable position of having to explain it. But I'm leaning toward implementing my own rate adjustment and letting Illinois Bell reach out and put the touch on ZPD to be reimbursed. She advises against that, saying it wouldn't be worth it because the late-payment fees on the overdue charge would keep increasing.

Patricia asks if there's anything else she can help me with. I tell her about the missing credit from OAN. She volunteers to call OAN on another line while I wait and make a billing inquiry on my behalf.

"If it's not too much trouble..."

"No trouble at all, Paul. That's my job."

I wait a few moments until Patricia comes back on the line.

"Paul," she says, "I'm speaking with Therese at OAN." Patricia says that Therese says that she can't find a record of the credit. Therese has told Patricia that OAN does not post credits on their computer system. Patricia sounds sufficiently incredulous that I'm tempted to ask whether record-keeping at OAN is done on three-by-five cards. But I don't. She might laugh, which would probably get her in trouble with her supervisor.

Patricia says Therese has asked her to ask me if I can recall the name of the person I talked to at OAN. This is ridiculous. How could anyone--even a schlub with nothing better to do than read his phone bill--remember the name of a service rep for a phone company he'd never even heard of a full month after talking to him?

I try to be patient. After all, it's not Patricia who's asking the question, it's Therese.

I glance down at last month's phone bill, which happens to be open to page one of section four. I study a scrawl, in my handwriting, beneath OAN's customer-service number. My pulse quickens as I begin to decipher the letters.

"Patricia," I say, "it's Clarence!"

"Clarence?"

"Yes, Clarence." This, I'm certain, will get us somewhere.

I overhear Patricia telling Therese that the person Paul talked to was Clarence. A few moments later, Patricia gets back on my line. She tells me Therese told her she found out, presumably from Clarence, that OAN did authorize a credit, but that it takes two months to issue.

Patricia sounds a bit miffed that it should take so long. I'm heartened by the knowledge that Clarence still works there. Patricia promises to keep an eye on things to make sure my credit goes through. If it doesn't in time for next month's bill, she will personally issue the credit to me.

I don't know quite how to thank her. No one I can recall has ever volunteered to advance me a credit before. Patricia, I think, deserves to have her own phone company, though I doubt she has the attitude required to gain that competitive edge. I should call the editor of Telebriefs and suggest a feature story on her.

As another productive day winds to a close, I call MCI to solve the mystery of the phantom Aadvantage card and unlock the secret of the override code. While waiting for the customer-service rep to come on the line, I contemplate Patricia's counsel not to withhold payment for the ZPD call. At the anticipated pace of my rate-adjustment review, those penalty charges really could add up. Over the course of ten years, through the miracle of compound interest, the late-payment fees could amount to enough to start my very own phone company. But even in America, even in the age of deregulation, I'm not sure that's possible for a schlub who has time to read his phone bill.

I decide not to pay for the call. Instead I'll rest content with the knowledge that each day when Patricia comes to work, she'll be watching to see if Therese put through that credit on my bill. And next time I go to Jersey, I'll be sure to take lots of coins.

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