Untangling Phone Fees

Of all the subjects I’ve covered in 14 weeks of writing this column, none have drawn more response than two pieces about the frustrations of dealing with today’s telephone service.

More than 220 calls and e-mail messages have come in from disgruntled consumers. Only one message defended the phone companies.

I also heard from two experts, telephone agent Ed Ticktin of Thousand Oaks and consultant Lori Korn of Rancho Palos Verdes. I talked to both of them at length at their offices, and Korn gave me the names of three other consultants, whom I also interviewed.

All of them had useful advice on how you can get the best prices and services in the turbulent telephone market.


So here’s another telephone column to pass on what they said. First, some of their general tips:

* Beware of companies that round up toll calls to the nearest minute. Those billing in six-second increments can save you about 18%. And for those with the less common one-second billing, the savings are an additional 4%.

* Be leery of minimum calling periods. A company may say it is charging you 5 cents a minute for California calls, but if it has a three-minute minimum, you will pay 15 cents for each one-minute call. Normally, there are many of these because of answering machines.

* Plans requiring you to talk for 20 minutes to get the full savings aren’t much good. Only 1% or 2% of all calls last that long.


* Beware of misleading comparative ads that ignore discounts offered by the competition.

* When you have a complaint, don’t waste time talking to low-ranking service reps who won’t give you satisfaction. “Escalate” up through supervisors until you find someone with the authority and willingness to act.

* When signing up with a new long-distance carrier, don’t take the first quote you are given. Ask whether they have special plans, particularly for the times and places you usually call.

The rewards can be great. Ticktin assured me that a man who was charged $8 a minute for his calls to the Philippines could have paid only 64 cents a minute.


And among the 900 or so companies now offering long-distance service, he said, it is possible in California to find a few that will let you call statewide for 5 cents or nationally for as low as 8 cents a minute.

Calling cards can run as low as 14 cents a minute with no surcharge, he said.

Korn said that when dealing with Pacific Bell in particular, it is best to quickly move up through supervisors until you find someone willing to be accommodating.

Often, she said, the higher the level, the more satisfaction.


(But a friend, I have to report, told me that when he tried this tactic for a repair, he was told it would take two to four hours to reach a PacBell supervisor.)

Other consultants I interviewed were Ken Asten of Northridge, William O’Sullivan of Studio City and John Lambert of Newport Beach.

Consultants get their income from businesses and individuals who hire them to resolve their telephone problems. Agents derive theirs from commissions that are paid by companies whose services or equipment they sell.

These days, it’s obvious we can use expert advice. Few of us are really savvy enough to know how to cope with the challenges that are out there.


Here’s a little specific advice from each of the professionals:

From Asten: “Tell long-distance service reps the time of day you place most of your calls, the volume of your calls and where you most often call. And ask them what promotions they have and when those promotions end.

“Also ask, ‘Do I have to sign a contract for some period of time?’ ”

Lambert said: “Nothing in this industry comes for free. But still, that serviceman who you had in an earlier column being billed $6 a minute for calls from Okinawa was paying too much. The most I’ve seen there was $2 or $3 a minute.”


It’s better, Lambert said, to deal with an actual carrier than a middle person. “Otherwise, you can be switched without your consent.”

O’Sullivan said price is not the only requirement in choosing a long-distance company, because service is important too.

“A friend of mine got a good call rate to Australia but no service,” he said. “He was completely frustrated whenever he had a question.

“So I’d say, look at the service. Quite a few people don’t have enough long distance to justify going outside the most reliable vendors. Some of the smaller players don’t have the necessary infrastructure.”


Ticktin emphasized not being shy in asking the long-distance companies for a better rate, remarking, “AT&T; will give you a 10-cent rate, if you push them.”

He also asserted the importance of carefully studying one’s bill to catch overcharges or unauthorized new charges.

Ticktin pointed out that, in rounding up to the nearest minute rather than every six seconds, nine out of every 10 calls on average will be billed at a higher rate than if the cutoff is every six seconds.

Korn agreed with Ticktin. “Whenever you are doing business with a long-distance carrier, ask them: ‘Do you have a cheaper rate? Is there a better plan?’ ”


And get it in writing, if you can, she added. “Since telecommunications have taken off economically, a lot of the people you talk to were selling shoes last month. You have to be careful.”

Ticktin can be phoned at (800) 906-8686, Korn e-mailed at, Asten phoned at (818) 363-1192, O’Sullivan at (818) 760-4747. And Lambert can be found in Orange County’s Yellow Pages, as specific as he wanted to be.


Kenneth Reich can be contacted with your accounts of true consumer adventure at (213) 237-7060, or by e-mail at