While Phone Rings, Charges May Begin

Question: This is in reference to my MCI phone bill. I have noticed several calls for one minute. These were to residences with answering machines that answer on the fifth ring. I am always careful to hang up on the third or fourth ring. I have also often noticed that when calling and hanging up before the answering machine has answered--and then calling back to verify the party won’t answer--that the phone is often busy, leading me to believe that the answering machine has indeed answered after I’d hung up.

Upon calling MCI about this problem, I was first told that “obviously” I’m not hanging up before the machine answers or I wouldn’t have been charged for the call. Upon request, I spoke to a manager, however, who told me that when I call a number with an answering machine--no matter how soon I hang up--I will be charged because the two machines have made a connection.

She therefore refused to reimburse me for these calls and told me all long-distance companies have the same problem because of this “connection” over which they have no control.

I called AT&T; and was told that they charge only when a person, or a machine, actually answered. But my mother has AT&T; and has the same problem I do. With so many answering machines these days, I feel ripped off being charged for calls that are not complete. What is really going on here?



Answer: We all tend to conduct our lives on the basis of old, time-honored belief: “Barking dogs never bite,” or “every cloud has a silver lining.”

Or, in modern America: “If you hang up on a telephone answering machine before it connects, you’re not charged for the call.”

The irony of this situation is that you got two apparently contradictory responses from the two biggies in the long-distance phone business. AT&T; told you that you’re charged only “when a person or a machine actually answered,” and MCI told you that you are charged when “the two machines make a connection.” Would you believe that both answers are perfectly valid? (Although, admittedly, it’s an oversimplification to suggest that you are going to be charged “no matter how soon” you hang up. If you are nimble enough, it can be done.)


Odd Situation

This is an odd situation in that the spokespersons for both communications companies were themselves not sure of how toll charges relate to answering machines until they had checked with their technical people.

Here’s how it works: You call a number serviced by an answering machine (and they can be set to respond on anywhere from the first ring to the fifth). About “2 to 3 seconds” before the ringing stops and the pause indicating that the machine is about to respond, there is a distinct click on the line. This is described by Victor Bhoot, a technical coordinator for Panasonic’s technical training department, as “a plunger in the relay making contact with the cassette player.” And this is when the telephone company’s meter starts running.

(In the interest of such lofty research, we armed our own answering machine--which is set to answer on the third ring--left the house and, equipped with a stopwatch, called our own number from a pay phone. The phone rang twice completely and then, 12 seconds after the first ring had begun, there was a very noticeable click which, frankly, I had never noticed before. About 2 more seconds elapsed--while the phone was still ringing--before the ringing stopped and a silence of about 2 more seconds indicated that the recording tape was running, but our message hadn’t yet come through. I repeated the experiment, hanging up instantly when I heard the click--my coin was not returned.)


“I think that a lot of people have this misunderstanding,” said Liz Morris, a public affairs spokesperson for AT&T;, “that if they hang up while the phone is still ringing, the call hasn’t gone through. Actually, the recording machine has been triggered at the instant that click takes place, but in many cases the caller is in the process of hanging up and doesn’t have the phone at his ear, and so he doesn’t hear the click.”

And Fran Zone, the senior manager of public affairs for MCI in San Francisco, confirms that MCI operates the same way.

Trouble at First

“The technology that makes it possible has been in place for only a little more than a year. When MCI first got started, the technology was such that we had a lot of initial trouble with what we called ‘ring-no-answer'--where a phone would ring for a long time and we didn’t have the technology to draw the distinction between ringing and talking.


“And so we had customers being charged for long-distance calls when, in actuality, no one had ever answered. We got that straightened out, all right, in time. This is a more sophisticated approach to the same sort of situation.”

Just when the telephone answering machine kicks on isn’t standardized (as far as anyone knows) among the manufacturers.

“With Panasonic,” a major supplier of the machines, “it’s about 2 to 3 seconds,” the company’s Bhoot said, “and I would imagine it’s about the same for Phone-Mate or Sanyo or AT&T; and the other makers. But it’s simply not spelled out in any of our technical manuals.”

Obviously there are elements of Russian roulette in all of this business of trying to hang up before that tell-tale click happens. You have no way of knowing whether the machine is set to answer on the first, second, third, fourth or fifth ring.


A consensus among those queried is that answering on the third ring is the most popular option. But there are plenty of variances.

“I set mine to answer on the second ring,” AT&T;'s Morris adds, “because if I’m not at home, I think it’s discourteous to make them sit there through five long rings before that becomes obvious.”

If you hang up too soon, you’ve nullified the point in calling. If you try to time it too exactly, then you run the risk of having the click take place while you’re in the process of hanging up.

There’s one possible moral in all this: If your timing is off and you hear the click, you might just as well stay on the line long enough to announce yourself.


Because you’ve paid for it anyway.

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.