Keeping in touch with family and friends back home is part of the weekly experience of most immigrant families. It is not unusual to find families that spend $50 to $100 on international phone calls. While the market for long distance service is very competitive and the growth of internet has helped reduce the cost of international calls in the past ten years, some long distance companies engage in unethical practices that are hardly noticed by customers. Most callers don’t even look at the details of their bill because they make the monthly payment by automatic withdrawal from their credit card or bank account.
Even when some callers check the list of their phone calls and notice the discrepancies they are too busy to take the time and call the phone company. This consumer apathy allows some of these service providers to overcharge their consumers. Over the years I have detected two types of overcharging scams in my phone bills.
First, some companies charge clients for incomplete calls. For example when you try to reach a relative in Tehran sometimes you dial the number several times before a connection is established. Every unsuccessful dial takes about one to two minutes. If you look at your monthly statement you might notice that you have been charged for all of these incomplete calls. When I add up these incomplete calls in my monthly statement they often add up to $2 to $4 per month which over the course of one year adds up to $24 to $48. Once every few months I call my service provider and demand refund for these incomplete funds. Why would you pay an additional $48 to your long distance service provider for the phone calls that you have never made?
It is very easy to recognize these calls. For example, when looking at your bill you notice that between 6pm and 6:30 pm in one day you have made 5 phone calls to the same phone number. Four of these calls are shorter than 3 minute and one of them is 18 minutes long. It is obvious that the first four calls were incomplete. The second trick that is less obvious and harder to detect is over-reporting of the length of a phone call. For example you call a relative in Tehran and speak for 20 minutes but your bill reports the length of your call as 24 minutes and you will be over-charged for an additional 4 minutes. Most of us don’t keep track of the exact length of our phone call and assume that what the phone bill shows is correct because it is all automated. I discovered this unethical and illegal practice by accident.
When looking at one of my monthly bills I noticed a 14 minute phone call starting at 7:10 am and another 10 minute phone call starting at 7:18 am. Since my service provider, like most long distance service providers, does not allow for simultaneous multiple access I thought that this must be an error. The 14 minute phone call that started at 7:10 would not have ended before 7:24 and it was impossible for someone else in my family to initiate another phone call at 7:18.
I emailed the phone company about this error and after two days they wrote back that it must have been a rare computer glitch. They also agreed to refund the charges for the overlapped minutes. A few days later I talked about this to a friend of mine who is an engineer and worked for a long distance service provider in Iran for a couple of years before coming to the United States.
He said that over-reporting the usage time was a common practice among long distance service providers in Iran and there was even a software available for it. This program added a random amount to the length of each conversation that was being recorded. While the added minutes were random and varied from one phone call to the next, they amounted to a target average of two or three minutes or any other figure that the owner of the program had selected. While these added minutes were small they generated a sizable additional profit for the service provider.
After hearing this story I became suspicious and checked my previous long distance phone bills. To my surprise there were at least one or two overlapping phone calls (similar to the one that e I described above) in each bill. I prepared a list of these phone calls and emailed them to the service provider. I told them that the frequency of these overlapping phone calls proves that this is not a rare computer error but a systematic and deliberate procedure for overcharging the service users. The company wrote back a technical explanation that did not make any sense and refused to accept guilt. I wrote to the Better Business Bureau of the city that the long distance service provider was located at. I also decided to write this article and bring this fraudulent practice to the attention of the immigrant community.
Please check your phone bill carefully and take action if you observe any fraud and overcharging. Contact your service provider, contact the better business bureau, contact the regulatory office in charge of these services and above all contact your community and help others protect themselves against these dishonest practices. Companies that engage in these types of illegal and unethical practices count on their clients to be apathetic and too busy to check their phone bills carefully. But think about it, if you add up these one or two dollars that the phone companies steals from you, they can add up to $500 over course of ten years. Don’t you think you can put $500 to better use than giving it to a dishonest phone company? At the very least you could have given this money to your favorite charity. (I hope readers that are familiar with other types of long distance phone fraud will use the comment section below this article to share their experience with others.)
Nader Habibi teaches economics at Brandeis University near Boston.