CONSUMERS : Phone Charge Started the New Year on a Low Note

Question: I received my January phone bill, and it included a listing for a call that I had made from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tenn., around noontime on Jan. 2. The rate seemed rather high and I called AT&T;'s 800 number to protest. My argument was that, because Jan. 1 had fallen on a Sunday, the following Monday automatically became the official national holiday, and therefore weekend and holiday rates should have been applied to all long-distance calls throughout the day. The Rose Bowl Parade was held on Jan. 2, as were other major college bowl games, and all government offices were closed, as well as thousands of business firms. But AT&T; rejected my complaint.

I contend that AT&T; ripped off millions of American on Jan. 2 by overcharging based on regular weekday rates rather than normal weekend and holiday rates. The aggregate overcharges must add up to millions of dollars across the nation. Can you negotiate refunds for all of us who got ripped off?--E.P.

Answer: It may have looked like a holiday, "walked" like a holiday and "quacked" like a holiday, but Jan. 2 in AT&T;'s book was just another Monday.

Despite the deregulation of the phone business, according to Kelly Williams, AT&T;'s spokesperson here, the tariffs covering long-distance calls are still very much under the thumb of both the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and each state's public utilities commission.

"We don't really have any pricing flexibility. Naturally, we do have special rates on holidays and weekends," Williams adds, "but we're prohibited from discounting rates on an ad-hoc basis." On what might be termed a "special" set of circumstances, that is.

"We would have to file for a new tariff on an individual basis every time we had a situation like this. And it just isn't feasible."

For whatever comfort you can take in it, she continues, nighttime and weekend rates are better deals (50% off the regular rate) than holidays anyway (35% off).

So, while all of us were dead in the water Jan. 2, trying not to do anything more productive than picking up a doughnut at Winchell's, everything was closed down not because it was a holiday, but because of custom. It might be equally logical to argue that weekend phone rates should apply on a Friday preceding a holiday that happens to fall on a Saturday, because everything shuts down then too.

"Unfortunately," Williams adds with a heavy sigh, "a holiday is a holiday, and it doesn't really have anything to do with whether businesses are shut down or not."

Q: Thank you for your very helpful column. I learn a lot! You wrote recently about the new practice of banks charging for redeeming T-bond coupons. I have a similar problem with depositing municipal bond coupons to my account. Some banks charge $7.50 per coupon. May I solve that problem by handling the transaction myself? Can I send the coupon directly to the bank indicated on each coupon?--E.S.

A: Sure. The bank named on each coupon is the transfer agent for the bond issue and that's its job. It's the bank from which your bank collects the interest. And there's no fee involved because the bank acting as the transfer agent receives its compensation from the underwriter of the bond issue.

Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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