It doesn't raise the hackles of, say, high-speed Internet service crashing for weeks, or rental-car companies charging damages for a wear-and-tear nick on a bumper. Maybe because getting riled over nominal charges that increasingly show up on bills is a trivial pursuit by comparison.
But the recent column on the corporate fee spree that's picking consumer pockets ("Land of the Fee," June 28) stirred some readers -- especially about fees on phone bills.
District resident Lori Gronich e-mailed about a 99-cent monthly "paper-billing fee" that MCI recently began charging customers who want their bills to arrive by mail. Those who pay via computer or use an automatic checking account or credit card deduction avoid this little gem of a fee, which MCI blames on the rising cost of snail-mailing paper bills.
"This used to be part of the cost of doing business and I think it should remain so," says Gronich, who complained to MCI and got a one-month reprieve, saving 99 cents. "MCI said everyone was doing it, so they added this, too."
Adding fees, yes. But while some discount phone companies such as Total Call International and Voice Revolution charge from 99 cents to $1.95 for paperwork invoices, most phone companies haven't taken this step -- yet. Verizon does charge $1.99 (and Nextel $2.50) for itemized paper billing that many consumers think is essential for checking bills for the various fees and charges dumped on phone bills.
Reston reader Stephen Brooks checks the fees on his phone bill every month. He says his basic phone service advertises for $24.95, but a recent bill, totaling only the basic charge plus excise taxes, line charges, Universal Connectivity Charges, state right-of-way charges, a "911" tax and other fees, came to $42.14.
"Which is [nearly] 70 percent more than the contract amount," says Brooks, raising the specter of American colonists taking up arms over unwarranted taxes. "Would you pay a 70 percent tax rate? We are forced to do just that."
While the government requires phone carriers to pay many of these taxes and fees, the decision to pass some of those regulatory compliance costs and property taxes on to customers as line items on their bills is discretionary. It's authorized by law but not required. And some of the fees, like the Carrier Cost Recovery Charge, are a standard cost of doing business.
"It is upside-down and consumers are paying through the nose," says Sam Simon, chairman of the board of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center (TRAC), an advocacy group for residential telecommunications customers.
Simon says the federal excise tax charged on phone bills stems from an era when telephone service was a luxury used by the wealthy. It originated during the Spanish-American War. "So it was okay to tax that phone service," he says, "but now [phone service] has become a necessity and the tax is the biggest trough."
State and local communities also feed at that trough via county utility user taxes, state relay fees, etc. The "911 tax," he says, "is a general public good that should be paid out of our general revenues" -- not through phone bills.
The latest zany add-on, says Simon, is a $3.50-a-month local tax to wireless bills. "Alexandria has done it, Baltimore has done it. It is cascading and it'll be everywhere," he says. "But why?"
Simon says phone companies are not totally to blame in what has become "a morass" of phone bill fees. Phone carriers have lobbied against the federal excise tax and argued that money should go toward the USF fees instead. But the phone companies, he adds, are too willing to "rope" consumers with these charges.
"I'm waiting for the day when I walk into the furniture store to buy a new sofa and there is an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] fee on it," he says, encouraging consumers to complain to their congressmen and state legislators about fees on phone bills. "If you've got to pay these things, it should be included in their advertised rates."
Consummate Consumer Is Moving
Today's column marks the last of a long and gratifying run in the Style section, where the Consummate Consumer originated nearly 19 years ago as a header on occasional consumer-related features. From the first one (on the subject of discarding used engine oil without paying a fee), it grew into a weekly consumer-advocacy column by 1997, covering scams, deceptive advertising, billing issues, unresponsive corporations and consumer complaints -- the kinds of problems and frustrations people face every day.
Now the column is moving. Starting on Aug. 21, the Consummate Consumer will appear weekly in Sunday Business where it will join other consumer and personal-finance columns and coverage -- including Michelle Singletary's "The Color of Money" and Al Crenshaw's "Cash Flow." Check it out.
Got a consumer complaint? Questions? A tip for other consumers? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.