The 411 on a fee for an unlisted number

Marketplace Staff Jul 1, 2009

The 411 on a fee for an unlisted number

Marketplace Staff Jul 1, 2009


BOB MOON: Time to get the 411 on something you might be paying for but not getting. Our regular contributor here, L.A. Times business columnist David Lazarus has taken a look at phone directories, and he tells us he’s turned up a wrong number. We all like getting something for nothing, but this charge turns that idea on its head. David, thanks for joining us.

DAVID LAZARUS: My pleasure.

MOON: And I understand that we are being charged for something that we’re not even getting? What is this?

LAZARUS: You don’t see this a lot, being charged a monthly fee for a service you didn’t even ask for in the first place. But this is what the telecom companies do if you ask to have your number unlisted. In other words, not in the phone book, not when you call 411. Most, if not all, telecom companies — that’s the phone and the cable companies — will charge you a monthly fee. And the fee can be all over the place. For instance, Time Warner Cable — $0.99 a month — goes all the way up to Charter Communications, another cable company that charges $5 a month to not provide a service to you.

MOON: This is a fee that I know has existed for a long time, but times have changed right?

LAZARUS: And so has technology. And the simplicity of making the change and having the customers’ preference recorded you would think would only be a one-time affair. In fact, industry insiders say, ‘yeah, it’s not that hard. We make the change in the database and that’s it. It’s done.’ But the telco’s charge it over and over. And I put it to them. I called every single one of them that I could get my hands on, and in fact one of them — Charter — even said to me, ‘well, we charge a recurring fee because the other companies do.’

MOON: So why does it work this way? It seems backwards to me. Why not opt in to a phone directory if you want your number listed?

LAZARUS: That’s a terrific question, and the reason is very simple. This fee represents millions and millions of dollars in revenue for the telcom companies. And it represents a significant boost to their bottom line at time when many of these markets are already mature. If this were turned around and it became an opt-in — so a customer would say, ‘I want to be in on the directory’ — that’s a much more customer-friendly approach. It’s also a much less profitable approach for the telco’s, so you can understand why they wouldn’t want an opt-in approach.

MOON: Now it sounds like the consumer is going to have to start fighting back in order to get this fee changed, perhaps?

LAZARUS: And there are a number of ways that you can fight back. I’ve heard from a number of customers that say, ‘you know what we do. We keep our number listed, but we put a bogus name in.’

MOON: So in the meantime, we’re just all going to have to keep ponying up here.

LAZARUS: I think so, and tell your elected representatives that this is a fee you don’t quite understand, see if you can put a little push behind it.

MOON: David Lazarus is a business columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks for joining us.

LAZARUS: My pleasure.

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