Most of us endured Hurricane Floyd with the help of radio, TV and a stash of potato chips. Jill Stoffel endured Floyd by telephoning her husband. But she almost didn't endure the bill.
Jill had been visiting in upstate New York. Although she knew Floyd was heading north on Sept. 16 -- and she would have to head south, directly into its path -- she decided to try her luck.
All day, Jill drove toward her home in Northwest Washington, along U.S. Route 15. All day, the forecasts grew more and more dire. So as she neared Harrisburg, Pa., Jill decided to stop and call her husband to see what the forecast was in good old D.C.
Jill chose a pay phone outside a McDonald's. Her call began at 1:29 p.m. and lasted three minutes -- just long enough for Jill's husband to tell her she could probably make it to Washington before the worst of the storm did. Jill was safely home by 4 p.m., well ahead of most of the wind and rain.
But when Jill's phone bill came a few days later, there was a second hurricane.
She was charged $18.10 for that three-minute call to her husband. Tack on $2.07 in state tax and 61 cents in federal tax, which the phone folk did, and the call rang the gong for $20.78.
Jill calls that "outrageous." I call it a perfect example of how no two long-distance calls are created equal.
Jill's big mistake was to call collect, via a real, live operator. Yes, she owns a telephone credit card, but she hadn't brought it with her. Yes, she could have gone into McDonald's and gotten quarters to stuff into the slot. But she was in a rush, and in a bit of a Floyd-induced tizzy. So she chose the path of least resistance.
The $18.10 charge was the handiwork of Opticom, a Pennsylvania phone company. After she stopped choking over the amount, Jill called that company's 800 line and asked that the charge be reduced. A customer service representative offered to knock off $5. Jill considered that insulting, and hung up.
She might want to call back and accept, pittance or no. The rate she was charged is fairly standard for operator-assisted calls made from pay phones at high-traffic locations.
If you're made of money, and want to run an experiment, march into just about any hotel. Find the pay phones in the lobby. Use one of them to call your best honey or your worst enemy. Make sure you bill the call to a phone card. If you do, the call will cost just a few cents.
But if you hang up, place the same call to the same number via an operator and ask that the charges be reversed, you'll be in Jill-ville.
If you insist on calling collect, despite this story, 1-800-COLLECT is usually cheaper than just taking pot luck with whatever a smaller carrier might charge.
Also, a person who is asked to accept a collect call has the right to ask what the rates are -- and the right to decline the call after hearing them. Also, the caller can inquire about rates -- and shop for them -- ahead of time.
According to a customer service rep at Opticom, the company's rates depend on who owns a particular pay phone.
For example, at that McDonald's outside Harrisburg, if there were two pay phones side by side, it's possible that they were owned by different people, the service rep said. So a call made from Phone A might be much more expensive -- or much less -- than the same call made from Phone B. Of course, there's no rate card posted on either phone, and no law requiring one.
Jill may decide to bring a carrier pigeon or a laptop with her the next time she travels to upstate New York. But even if she doesn't, she has learned her lesson: When outside a busy fast foodery, don't think that you deserve a break today. You won't get one.
We're part of the way to finding the owner of that lost Northwood High School class ring. Perhaps on Saturday night, we'll finish the job.
In case you missed my column of Oct. 1, a reader found a ring belonging to a member of the Northwood class of 1969. Not knowing what else to do with it, and believing deeply in Bob Levey's vast powers, she shipped it to me. I surfcast the news, hoping to land a fish.
What I landed was a whole bunch of Northwood '69ers who have saved their yearbooks. Based on the clues I published -- the engraved initials inside the ring read either LCA or LCR -- the yearbook scourers came up with one member of the class who might have owned the ring. She is (or at least was) Laura Achhammer.
If you see today's column, Laura, and the ring is yours, call me at 202-334-7276 and I'll reunite you with it. In the meantime. . .
As luck would have it, Northwood '69 is holding its 30th reunion this Saturday night, Oct. 16, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Pooks Hill Marriott in Bethesda. The Reunion Co., a Rockville outfit that organizes and runs such events, is handling the Northwood bash.
I asked Betsy Flaherty, queen bee of the Reunion Co., if she'd do me (and perhaps Laura) a favor. If I mailed Betsy the ring, would she please set it on a table on Saturday night, with a sign explaining that the ring is seeking its owner? Betsy said she'd be glad to do it.
Thanks, kind lady. Here's hoping that amid the nostalgia of Saturday night, we land a ringless fish at last.