Calling Feature Is Ringing a Few Customers’ Bells

A wave of strange phone incidents has swept through California, leaving thousands of Pacific Bell customers puzzling over strange ring-backs, inadvertent recordings on other people’s answering machines and other oddities.

In most cases, the culprit is PacBell’s new three-way calling feature, which was added to 8.5 million California residential phone lines last month.

The feature makes it possible--and easy--for any residential customer to place a conference call without subscribing to the service or dialing any special codes.

PacBell’s three-way calling feature costs 75 cents for each use (not counting normal toll or long-distance charges), up to a maximum of $6 per month. The fees started April 1, following a free trial period in March. For heavy users, the service has long been available by subscription for $3.50 per month.


However, the new service is so easy to activate that customers have been inadvertently triggering the feature, yielding confusing “stutter” dial tones, unexplained ring-backs and even inadvertent eavesdropping.

“We’ve been getting calls about it for the past month,” said Linda Woods, manager of the consumer affairs branch of the state Public Utilities Commission. “There are people who are concerned and annoyed. And some people who don’t like it have asked to have it disconnected.”

Woods said her office has received three or four complaints a day, although some callers merely want to make sure their phone is not malfunctioning.

PacBell’s service department has received thousands of calls from customers who are concerned about broken dial tones and accidental activation of the three-way calling feature.


In one incident, a PacBell customer called his parents in Florida but got the answering machine. After hanging up, he immediately called an airline to make plane reservations to attend a surprise birthday party for his father.

But the customer did not hang up long enough, and unbeknownst to him, his whole conversation with the airline was recorded on his parents’ answering machine, according to the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco consumer group known as TURN.

How did it happen? The key is in the hang-up button, sometimes called the “flash” button.

To activate PacBell’s three-way calling service, a customer makes a call to Person A and, once connected, presses the hang-up button briefly--that puts Person A on hold. The caller will hear a stutter--or broken dial tone--then the regular dial tone.


To add another party, the customer calls Person B and, once connected, taps the hang-up button quickly. With that, all three people should be connected.

In the Florida situation, the customer who called his parents’ answering machine did not hold down the hang-up button long enough, thus triggering the three-way calling service, according to TURN.

The answering machine was on hold and picked up the conversation with the airline.

In other cases, a person might hang up too briefly and get an immediate ring-back because the previous call was taken to be the first leg of a conference call and was merely put on hold and not disconnected.


“I think this is going to happen on a daily basis in many households in California,” said Thomas Long, an attorney at TURN. He added that he worries consumers will unwittingly activate the service and then not notice the erroneous charges on their bills.

PacBell said the 75-cent charge does not apply if the connection is shorter than 18 seconds, and the company will give refunds to customers for accidental conference calls.

The problems can be avoided by holding down the hang-up button for two seconds before making another call, according to PacBell. Customers who hear the stutter dial tone should hang up to disconnect the conferencing feature.

The company plans to include customer notices about the confusion in April and May bills.


One other word of caution: The stutter tone for the conference feature is nearly indistinguishable from the stutter tone used to inform voicemail users that there are messages to retrieve.


MediaOne, the region’s largest cable company, will launch local phone service in Culver City on April 13.

The move will give residential phone customers in the 310 area code their only alternative to Pacific Bell for local service after the recent withdrawal of AT&T;, MCI and other long-distance companies trying to crack PacBell’s monopoly market.


MediaOne will provide phone service over its upgraded network, which is already providing users with Internet access. Tests will begin Tuesday, with commercial service set to begin the following week.

The company had long ago filed papers with state regulators to offer local service, but the launch date had been uncertain.

News of the impending launch came last week from Alan Gardner of the California Cable Television Assn. Asked Friday to elaborate on the company’s plans, MediaOne spokeswoman Gisselle Acevedo-Franco said, “We’re not able to talk about that today.”



Elizabeth Douglass can be reached at