Privacy price gouging, courtesy of phone companies

Charging customers repeatedly to make their phone numbers unlisted is nothing more than a money grab by companies that already pocket billions of dollars a year in profit.

Phone company fees

Before California regulators gave the phone companies free rein in 2006 to jack up fees, AT&T charged 28 cents for customers to keep their numbers out of the phone book and online directories. The company's charge has risen 525% since then. (MYUNG J. CHUN, Los Angeles Times / March 7, 2002)

By now, you're probably thinking you have no privacy left.

To cite just a couple of prominent recent examples, we had Target and other retailers admitting in January that hackers may have accessed the credit and debit card numbers of more than 110 million people.

Last week, we all took a crash course in Heartbleed, the security software flaw that may have quietly jeopardized the personal information of just about every Internet user for the last two years.

Amid these ongoing privacy breaches, you'd think all businesses would be doing everything possible to help customers protect themselves.

All, that is, except the phone companies.

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David McDonald, 65, of Arroyo Grande is among millions of AT&T customers who now have to pay $1.75 a month for the privilege of an unlisted phone number. The company raised the fee in January from $1.25 — a 40% increase.

Before California regulators, in their infinite wisdom, gave the phone companies free rein in 2006 to jack up such fees, AT&T charged 28 cents for customers to keep their numbers out of the phone book and online directories. The company's charge has risen 525% since then.

Verizon Communication's unlisted-number fee is even more insane — if you can figure out what it is. More on that in a moment.

And let's emphasize: This is for a service that a phone company is not providing. It's for them not including your name in a directory and not facing the costs of printing it in a phone book.

"It's pure gravy," said Natalie Billingsley, telecom supervisor for the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, an arm of the state Public Utilities Commission. "They charge whatever they want to charge."

McDonald has a very good reason to keep his home number to himself. As a former California prison guard, he wants to make it as difficult as possible for erstwhile business acquaintances, shall we say, to find him.

"Why should I have to pay $1.75 a month?" he asked. "Why shouldn't I just be able to keep my number unlisted?"

It's a question I've been repeating for years. It's not as if it costs AT&T or any other phone company anything to specify that a particular number isn't to be publicly listed. In the computer age, we're talking about a keystroke or two.

Moreover, the idea that this would be a recurring charge is absurd. Do the phone companies have to re-enter your preference every 30 days?

Dan Conway, an AT&T spokesman, said privacy-minded customers can choose to omit their address from directory listings or just use their first initial with their last name. There's no cost for these preferences, he said.

But for an unlisted number, Conway said, there are "special handling procedures" that require an "administrative charge."

I asked why that charge is now $1.75 when it costs AT&T little or nothing to provide this service. Conway declined to comment.

I asked why customers have to keep repaying the charge every month. No comment.

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