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.

Have a consumer question? Ask Laz

 

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.

Featured Stories

CTnow is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on ctnow.com articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.

CONSUMER COLUMNISTS

Kevin Hunt - The Electronic Jungle

Kevin Hunt: Technology for the amateur spy - July 21, 2014 - Spy technology has become so widespread and smartphone-ready that sleuthing, like golf, can be played by almost anyone.

Gail MarksJarvis

Money market rules designed to increase awareness - July 30, 2014 - SEC action involving the $2.6 trillion money market industry reminds people that money market funds are a different breed than savings...

David Lazarus

Trying to talk with IRS can be taxing - July 28, 2014 - No one expects the federal government to be a model of efficiency. But with a projected deficit of nearly $600 billion this year, you'd...

Korky Vann

Hot Or Cold, Lobster Rolls Are Worth The Drive - July 13, 2014 - At least once a summer, (more often, if I'm lucky), I have to have a lobster roll — preferably consumed at a picnic table with a...

Advertisement

...