One of the duties of consumers in the free market is to rage against the machine every so often, so here goes. I have a cell phone but I leave it in my car because it can get lost or stolen in crowded bars and restaurants. I have had the same home phone number for over 20 years. That number came with a calling card, which is the number plus a four-digit code. I have used it a million times. There was always a small surplus for the convenience. A 55-cent call from Marin to San Francisco might be 75 cents. Fair enough. Lately, I have noticed amazing charges on pay phones, and I cannot believe this is not sticking in the craws of a lot of people besides me. A one-minute call from a pay phone near Lake Tahoe to Reno, about 40 miles away, cost $24. Twenty-four DOLLARS. Recently, I had to call a cab after being separated from my car (and my cell phone). Out of change, I used a pay phone on 4th Street in San Rafael to call a cab company in San Rafael. The phone book was missing, so I had to use my calling card to call information (about a 20-second call rounded to a minute), followed by the call to the cab (another 30 seconds rounded to a minute). The call to 411 was $9.50, the call to the cab was $8.50. I had reason to use pay phones more than usual last month, and I charged seven or eight calls to the calling card. A couple of the calls were from pay phones south of 4th Street in San Rafael to numbers north of 4th Street that, honestly, I could have shouted to the location and been heard. I got answering machines, left messages, and the whole call was about 20 seconds (rounded to a minute). The cost: $8.45. As Slim Pickens once said, "What in the wide, wide world of sports is goin' on here?"
So I called the toll free number on the SBC bill. I found myself speaking to a person in Texas who told me she was not SUPPOSED to help me. Not that the calls were legal, she could not help me, she did not want to help me, or that she enjoyed my predicament. Rather, she was not SUPPOSED to help me. As if there was some law, some rule, a case, judicial mandate or a pronoucnement from Gawd that made it ILLEGAL for her to provide me the first iota of customer satisfaction. She told me to call my phone company. How stupid of me to think the phone number on the bill sent to me by my phone company was the phone number of my phone company. She did not know who my phone company was, where they were located or what their name was (apparently the bill coming from SBC does not mean it comes from SBC). It was my distinct impression that she was hired highly, precisely and to quintessential effect due to her ability to sound very pleased that customers were mad and that it was her duty to tell them they had zero recourse.
I called the Marin D.A.'s consumer protection division. They had helped me before when CompUSA tried to rip me off. The friendly man there said he was aware of the situation but had no answer other than to buy pre-paid calling cards from the grocery store, and never to use the calling card that was first issued to me by Pacific Bell in 1982. He told me that pay phones were "private property" and that they had to have a phone number on them that one could call to find out how much a call will cost ahead of time. I have to differ with his assesment slightly. Pay phones are what are known as "quasi-public property." They invite the public to use them for commercial purposes. Like, for instance, a shopping center, a "quasi-public property" is different from a personal house or a private piece of ranch land in, say, Montana. Therefore, they are subject to different laws regarding discrimination and other public issues.
The phone number on the pay phone does not, in my view, make it proper for these phones to gouge ususpecting customers. Courts have found, for instance, that long contracts with small print that nobody reads for daily purchases are not as enforceable as more private contracts for a one-on-one agreement like, for instance, a deal reached between Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, which is gone over with a fine tooth comb by lawyers for both sides. I would argue the number on the pay phone, which could be scratched out, graffitied-over or too dark to read, falls under the "boiler-plate" language of semi-unenforceable contracts. Furthermore, it offers no choice. The phone call may be necessary, perhaps even an emergency. Even if one takes the time to call the number on the front of the pay phone to find out a one-minute call half a mile away in the same area code will cost $10, the consumer still may have no other choice. It is not like there are five pay phones lined up and the caller can sample each of them to determine the lowest cost. Free markets are fine, and pay phones provide a service that is often indispensable. There are fewer of them now due to cell phones and vandalism, but the blindside costs of getting hammered for 10 bucks seems to be something that consumer laws in this country, somewhere, somehow, are meant to prevent.
I am of course well aware of the "options," which are to use cell phones, pre-paid calling cards or keep change, but the simple fact is there are times when those options are either unavailable or highly inconveninent, and use of the calling card at a pay phone is the only choice. For now, think of this as a cry in the wilderness and, for what it is worth, the identification and exposition of SBC as being the company that charged these rates (although they are not the only ones). Let the call go forth to a new generation of Americans that we are not gonna take it anymore.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism