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Time Warner and the silly fee

I’ve always admired the way phone companies charge a monthly fee for people not to be listed in a phone book. I mean, talk about chutzpah -- charging customers to not receive a service they didn’t even ask for in the first place.

But Time Warner Cable takes the cake. The company charges 99 cents a month for its telephone customers to not be listed in a directory that the company doesn’t even publish.

Time Warner outsources the entire operation. It relies on Sprint to pull together all its customers’ names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone giant dominates a particular area -- typically AT&T; or Verizon.

The Time Warner Cable customers are then listed alongside AT&T;'s or Verizon’s customers in that company’s phone book.

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Think of that: Time Warner hires rival telecom companies to provide this service, which undoubtedly represents a significant financial commitment on Time Warner’s part.

But if a customer chooses not to burden the company with inclusion in another company’s directory, he or she gets smacked with nearly $12 a year in additional fees.

I bring this up because Time Warner Cable has just notified about 70,000 Southern California customers that the company neglected to charge them for the privilege of not being listed in the phone book of a competing service provider.

Time Warner says customers desiring unlisted numbers now have 30 days in which to make their preference known. Otherwise, the monthly fee will kick in.

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“We periodically conduct audits to make sure customers are being billed correctly,” said Patricia Fregoso-Cox, a Time Warner spokeswoman. “In this case, we determined that we’d made a mistake by not billing people.”

To the company’s credit, it’s not shaking people down for past payments. But what’s the deal with the recurring nature of the unlisted-number fee?

I mean, this is the computer age. Companies maintain databases. If a customer expresses a particular preference -- to have his or her phone number unlisted, say -- you enter a few keystrokes and, boom, problem solved.

Why would you get billed again for this every few weeks?

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“There’s a processing fee to keep people unlisted,” Fregoso-Cox replied.

What kind of process beyond the initial change to the database?

“I’m not sure. But there’s a process to keep people out of the listings.”

She added: “In the years I’ve had an unlisted number, I’ve never questioned it. And our customers have never questioned it, as far as I know.”

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Be that as it may, Time Warner Cable isn’t alone in levying this fee. AT&T; charges its customers $1.25 monthly for an unlisted number. Verizon charges $1.75.

Jon Davies, a Verizon spokesman, said that “there are a lot of costs” associated with not publishing a number in a telephone directory, although he couldn’t say what they were.

“There are ongoing processes that we have to observe,” he said.

Gordon Diamond, an AT&T; spokesman, echoed this sentiment. “The fee is recurring because there are ongoing costs to provide the service,” he said, adding that unlisted numbers require “special handling.”

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Unless telecom companies maintain their records with quills and sheets of papyrus, this is just silly.

Charging people again and again to not be listed in a digitally maintained directory is tantamount to extortion, especially in an age where identity theft is the nation’s fastest-growing crime. No one should have to pay extra to protect their privacy.

Moreover, don’t phone companies make enough money as it is selling ads for their published listings and charging as much as $2.50 per call for directory assistance?

State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) introduced legislation -- SB 437 -- that would prohibit telecom companies from charging a fee for unlisted numbers. But she placed the bill on hold until next year amid fierce opposition by phone and cable companies.

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“They didn’t take it lightly,” Pavley told me. “They had a full contingent of lobbyists descend on the Senate.”

Former Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) introduced similar legislation last year and was soundly beaten back by industry lobbyists, who argued that any such change would cost them millions of dollars and could lead to increases for other phone rates.

A particularly striking aspect of this whole thing is the wide disparity in the amounts of fees charged. If it costs Time Warner Cable 99 cents a month to keep a customer’s number unlisted, why does the exact same service cost AT&T; customers $1.25, not to mention $1.75 for Verizon customers?

Could each company’s “process” really be that different?

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“We’ve talked to people who work in the industry,” Pavley said. “There’s no cost to this. They just press a few buttons and it’s done.”

And here’s another wrinkle: Time Warner requires the assistance of no fewer than two other telecom companies to list customers’ names and numbers in a phone book. Those other companies do all the heavy lifting.

But when Time Warner collects 99 cents a month for an unlisted number, how much of that fee is shared by the rival telcos?

Nada. Time Warner pockets the entire amount.

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Fregoso-Cox said the fee also covers the company’s liability should it mistakenly publish a number that a customer wanted unlisted. What if, say, a stalker took advantage of that information?

There’s an easy answer to that: Make phone books an opt-in affair rather than opt-out. If someone wants to be listed, fine. You make your preference known and you’re in. For everyone else, sweet privacy.

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David Lazarus’ column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

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Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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latimes.com/lazarus/number

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