James MacKenzie, WiMacTel’s chief executive, says that the $1 rate on the pay phone King saw was for coin calls, not credit cards. “Unfortunately, there is insufficient space on the pay phone to provide all the various rates associated with operator service calls,” he told me.
Instead, customers can opt in to disclosure through a series of voice prompts when they use WiMacTel’s service. MacKenzie acknowledged that credit-card call rates were significantly higher, attributing them to the “higher costs” associated with those types of calls, including the expenses incurred by having to validate the payment method, billing and collection, bad debt, offering live operators and credit-card processing fees.
However, after King complained, the company lowered his bill to $22. “Still pretty high for a pay phone call,” King notes.
Excessive phone charges used to be one of the staples of my consumer advocacy practice. Hotels considered their phone lines a profit center and would add generous surcharges to their guests’ phone bills, sometimes even imposing fees for lifting the phone from the receiver. That’s largely gone now, thanks to the preponderance of cellphones.
But a smaller threat remains. Lieu estimates that his bill would affect roughly 30,000 public phones in California, located in places where constituents can least afford the high charges, including prisons and hospitals.
How do you avoid these fees? Keep an extra battery handy when you travel, so that if your cellphone goes dead, you won’t have to resort to using a pay phone. If you must use a pay phone — and there are still times when you’ll need to, such as when there’s no reception — then buy a prepaid phone card.
Given the risk of being overcharged by credit card or debit card, you should reach for your plastic only as a last resort. Try using coins or bills to pay for the call, if possible. We’re still a long way from closing the disclosure loophole for credit-card calls, and until then, it seems, your pay phone calls could cost a lot more than you expect.
E-mail Christopher Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.