There is a moral to this story, but I'm not quite sure what it is.
Is it that Big Brother is watching you?
Is it that Big Brother isn't watching you, but maybe it would be nice if he were?
Or is it simply buyer beware?
One day last month, Arlene Benner of Sterling picked up her phone only to discover that it no longer did one of the things she likes her phone to do: make long-distance calls. It would make local calls but not ones to her brother in Ohio or anywhere else out of her calling area.
Arlene eventually was able to raise someone at Verizon, her phone company, who explained that a lot of long-distance activity had been noticed on her account in the past week or so, so much activity -- more than $4,000 worth -- that a block was placed on the line.
It soon emerged that this was not a question of fraud. Arlene's 42-year-old son had just moved back home, and he'd met someone on the Internet. Unfortunately, that someone lived in the Philippines. His lengthy calls to her were charged at about $4 a minute.
Of course, said the Verizon rep, if you had signed up for one of our international calling plans, those calls would have been about 16 cents a minute.
Arlene had two reactions to this news.
The first was that it was unfair for Verizon to cut off her long distance without even sending her a bill and giving her a chance to pay it. It seemed to her as if the company didn't trust that the bill would be paid, even though she and her husband, Dave, had been customers for years.
Said Arlene: "Granted it's a huge bill, but we had no idea there was a limit to what we could run up in long-distance charges."
Arlene's second reaction was that with all the fancy-schmancy technology at Verizon's disposal, couldn't someone have let her know that there was a cheaper plan?
Shouldn't Verizon have noticed the call volume, contacted the Benners and said, "Hey, you might want to consider our International Choice Plan for $4 a month?" After all, they noticed enough to cut off the long distance.
"I don't understand," said Arlene. "If they have the automation to terminate long-distance service without any communication, wouldn't they have the automation to cut in and say, 'You're not authorized to make these calls,' or some illumination on the fact they have another plan?"
Verizon spokeswoman Christy Reap said that's not really up to Verizon. For starters, there are privacy issues involved. "Verizon doesn't monitor usage of a phone line or how long calls are or where people are calling," she said.
It's easy to see how some people might get freaked out by a phone company representative ringing you up and saying, "A word of advice: You might want to cool it on the calls to Asia."
And, said Christy, "it's important to point out, too, that when they signed up for Verizon long distance in late 2004, they declined an international calling plan."
Of course, that "declined" might just have been "didn't sign up for." But Christy said you can find that information easily on the phone company's Web site, or call a sales rep who will be more than happy to explain the different options.
Christy said that Verizon has a computer program that flags unusual activity on the line and pulls the plug when it reaches a certain dollar amount. She wouldn't tell me what that threshold was.
If you've ever seen that movie "Fail-Safe," about a U.S. nuclear bomber mistakenly sent to destroy Moscow, you know that technology doesn't always work. And that was the case here. Verizon's computer flagged the Benners' account and, said Christy, "registered a block on their line." But the block didn't quite take. Calls were made for a couple of more days before the block was reapplied and Arlene realized she couldn't make any more long-distance calls.
Because that first block didn't go through, Christy said, "We're going to reach out to them to talk to them about some sort of partial credit."
Which seems about the best outcome one could expect.
I mean, really, you've got to assume that if you make a lot of long-distance calls, the bill is going to be high. ("My son was definitely at fault by not finding out the fees first," Arlene said. "That was his mistake.")
Verizon could have been hardheaded about this and not even offered the credit.
But I also think Verizon is being a little bit disingenuous. The company monitors usage when it's in its best interest to do so: when it might get stuck with a high bill.
I see the perfect solution: letters. Everyone likes getting mail, and no one has ever unwittingly run up a huge stamp bill.
More from the memorable sign front: Joyce Simmons of Falls Church remembers as a child during the '60s driving with her parents and grandparents through the Virginia countryside. Somewhere out near Little Washington was a restaurant that shared a sign with a service station. The sign read:
"We used to get a laugh each time we saw it," said Joyce. "And no, we never ate there."
Too bad it wasn't a restaurant next to a taxidermist. Then they could have had a single sign that said: "Get Stuffed."
See something memorable on your journeys? E-mail email@example.com, or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.