Information squeeze

Calling directory assistance can empty your pocket. How to dial defensively amid a crush of regulations and fees.

Two dollars for a 15-second telephone conversation may seem pricey, but that's the rate these days for many of the estimated 8 billion directory-assistance calls Americans make each year.

Typically given away until the 1984 breakup of AT&T, directory assistance appears to be a profit center these days for many telephone-service providers. They'll charge anywhere from 35 cents to $1.49 for local help, and up to $2 for a national request. Brace yourself if you're looking for a number overseas: Long-distance companies such as AT&T and MCI control that business and they charge nearly $8 for each call, whether it's to France or Fiji.

In a just-released study of directory-assistance charges, the Washington-based Telecommunications Research & Action Center estimated that a call to 411 for local directory assistance costs the dialer 36 cents to $1.25.

That's generally the best deal consumers will get, says center senior staff assistant Karen Walls. The "worst deal" is dialing the area code plus 555-1212, which switches the caller from the local telephone service into the long-distance arena and usually costs $1.99.

In 1999, the California Public Utility Commission estimated that it cost telephone companies 39 cents to answer a directory assistance request. Since then, Ms. Walls says at least one major provider has raised its rates 109 percent.

"They kind of just keep creeping up," says Walls of directory-assistance charges, a $4 billion-per-year industry.

A 'hodgepodge' of pricing

Some states regulate directory-assistance fees, others don't. That means the price, plus the number of free assistance requests that are allotted to a caller every month, varies depending upon where the customer lives.

In Colorado, for instance, directory assistance is unregulated and local service provider Qwest charges $1.25 for a call. In northern Idaho, where the rate is regulated, a call costs 35 cents. (Qwest says the average directory assistance charge for its 25 million Western state customers is 79 cents.)

"It's a hodgepodge" of pricing and regulation, says Jim Smith, a spokesman for Verizon, which serves much of the Northeast.

As they have implemented one calling plan after another, telephone companies don't seem to have greatly clarified the situation. They like to tout their accuracy rate, or ability to complete a call once it has been looked up, but haven't trumpeted any great cost savings. And the public doesn't seem to have picked up on some ways to save money.

Mr. Smith says consumers still see dialing 411 as a way to look up local numbers, and 555-1212 as the choice for long distance. But that's no longer true, since in most cases a call to 411 can get you number either locally or nationally.

A call to 411 also is more likely to put you in touch with an operator who is familiar with the area you're calling. Verizon, for instance, says it tries to have operators answer calls for an area close to where they work. But the company admits that calls are switched around so it can't guarantee someone in Albany will answer a call about an Albany telephone number.

Local service providers can't help when it comes to foreign calls, however.

"You need a database. I don't have a database for directory assistance in Nepal or even Great Britain," says Verizon's Smith.

Long-distance carriers have those databases, and charge considerably more than a call to, say, Oklahoma. MCI charges $7.94 per lookup anywhere in the world, while AT&T says it charges $1.50 to Canada, $1.99 to the Caribbean and $7.95 anywhere else.

Sprint charges $6.95 to $9 for international directory assistance, depending on the country. The company has no calling plans, says a spokeswoman. And unlike US directory assistance, where two lookups is the norm, a single request is typical with overseas assistance.

Tracking cellphone service

Because so many consumers now have cellular phones, Walls's group ( has started tracking the cost of directory assistance calls made by cellphone owners.

Here again the rates and plans bounce about: Sprint charges 25 cents and will provide four listings, while TRAC found that four other major cellular providers - Verizon, Cingular, Nextel, and AT&T - charged the same, but gave just one number.

Walls says multiple lookups is one way to save money. If you can get three numbers from one call, well, you've avoided two more calls - and charges.

Some savings, however, are merely a function of where a caller lives and how regulations govern tariffs. Walls says that in Washington, D.C., she gets five free calls to directory assistance every month; extras are just 36 cents each.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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