Long Distance

UPDATED: OCTOBER 2006: "Which Companies Do I Recommend?" Nov 2005: Free Directory Assistance & Phone Calls! ("Directory Assistance Game")

This page DOES NOT SELL any product or service! I have no vested interest in anything even remotely related to long distance or telephones, but I've always been interested in the industry. I've used alternate long distance companies almost since the beginning, from Sprint back when it was Southern Pacific Railroad to long-since forgotten ones like "ITT USTS", "RCI", or "SBS Skyline" (remember them?) I maintain this page merely as a hobby and as a service to the internet community, and while I try my hardest to keep this page current and up-to-date, please understand that this is NOT what I do for a living, and it would be humanly impossible to delve into every possible company. If you have any comments, corrections, or suggestions, please feel free to go to the main page, and drop me an email. The purpose of this page: (1) Constantly keep you up-to-date with the best long distance deals (2) Warn you of the many tricks long distance comapnies use to charge you more than they should (3) Keep you informed with the latest-breaking news and alerts (4) Help sift through the hype, and make you an informed consumer in an industry that is incredibly complex to understand By reading this document (yes, I know it's long), you'll know how to save a lot of money, and not be screwed by the long distance companies. Take notes. :) Please note: this page does not deal with cel phones. Please don't email me with cel phone questions.. I don't keep up with the cel phone industry.
* Warnings/Hot Off The Press! Updated June 2004 * Are You Paying Too Much For Long Distance? * Another Way To Save Money: Overriding Local Toll Calls NEW! * Are You Being Ripped Off? * The Big Long Distance Customer Rip-Off * The Directory Assistance Game UPDATE! November 2005! * Calling Cards Updated Dec. 2002 * Saving Money From Payphones * Important Information For Everyone * Which Companies Do I Recommend? Updated October 2006 * Links

Warnings/Hot Off The Press!

AT&T Takes The Money & Runs June 2004
As if it weren't bad enough that the long distance companies charge you for fake taxes that
they were originally supposed to pay themselves, now it's disclosed that they are are keeping
these funds for themselves instead of forwarding them along. And then it gets worse! Here's
part of a CNET story from May 10, 2004. Happy reading.

"AT&T disclosed Monday that it had avoided paying more than a half-billion dollars in regulatory fees
by using techniques either banned or under review by federal regulators. That estimate includes about
$200 million in access charges, which are what local phone companies charge long-distance providers
to connect to their customers. AT&T stopped paying these fees about eight months ago, claiming an
exemption, because many of its customers' calls travel over the unregulated Internet. The FCC recently
disagreed, triggering lawsuits from two local phone companies seeking the money, as the FCC suggested
in its ruling. The $200 million estimate is much higher than what the carrier previously estimated
that it owes the nation's leading phone companies. An AT&T spokesman said Monday morning that he was
unable to explain the varying estimates."

--> "AT&T avoided paying even more in fees on its prepaid calling-card business, the carrier said.
Since 1999, AT&T hasn't paid $215 million in access charges nor about $140 million in Universal
Service Fund contributions, which finance such things as rural telephone service expansion. AT&T says
its prepaid calling cards are exempt, because calls first travel to a call center, where dialers listen
to commercial announcements, then are routed onward... The FCC has been reviewing the calling-card
matter for about a year. Monday marked the first time that AT&T disclosed how much it avoided paying
on its calling cards and many of its Internet phone calls."

Wow. So not only do we get charged fake taxes the long distance companies were originally supposed to pay
themselves, not only do they then keep the monies illegally instead of forwarding them on, but they then
have the nerve to claim they're able to DO so because -- get this -- callers are forced to listen to
commercials. Why does ANYBODY still stay with this company?

Do Not Use WorldXChange / Penny Plan Anymore
January 6, 2004 WorldXChange Starts "Low Usage" Fees
For a long time on my page here, I recommended as a backup only WorldXchange's
"Penny Plan" for a cheap overseas dial-around (10-10-XXX) option for those rare
times that the main company I reommend (PT-1) goes down. NO LONGER. Without ANY WARNING
to its customers, WorldXChange just started a "low usage" fee, which means if you use
them at all in any given month, and don't make at least $5 in calls with them that month,
they will now slap you with a $2.50 "low usage" surcharge (about $2.77 with taxes). As I
always stated on my page, WorldXChange has always been a sleazy company (run by a convicted
ex-drug trafficer) that did so many illegal "slammings" against people that the State of
California went so far as to take away its right to complete in-state calls placed in
California, and I reommended them only as an emergency backup only for international calls.
Now obviously, I'm taking them off my webpage, and out of my auto-dial. But it gets better:
I called them up (waiting 48 minutes for a rep to come on the line) and told them that since
I had received no notification of the new surcharge, I wanted the surcharge off the bill.
They flatly refused to do so.. so I did what is in everyone's right to do -- and what I strongly
recommend all of you who have been billed for this surcharge do: dispute it with your local
phone company. The way this plan works, your local phone company bills you on behalf
of them.. and all you need to do is call up your local phone company and tell them you wish
to dispute this charge. Your local service cannot and will not be affected by this (in other
words, they can't disconnect your service for refusing to pay or placing in dispute a charge
from another company that they bill for). This is what I did myself. I called up Verizon (my
local phone company), and told them that while I will pay for the cost of the one call to
Hong Kong I actually made with WorldXChange, I will not pay the $2.50 surcharge ($2.77 with
taxes figured in). Verizon happily took it off my bill... so now if WorldXChange wants their
ill-gotten money, they will have to hire a collection agency completely independent of the
local phone company (something they will not want to do, as it will cost them a heck of a lot
more than $2.76). So again, I'm removing WorldXChange completely from my webpage, and I recommend
that anyone charged this surcharge simply refuse to pay it (via the local phone company).

One important thing to note: if you call WorldXChange, they will try to convince you to use
them as your primary long distance company to avoid this "charge." Do not do it!! They are
among the sleaziest companies in the industry, and there are SO MANY other MUCH BETTER choices.
Take a look at my "Which Companies Do I Recommend?" area. As it turns out, for international
calls, the main dial-around (10-10-XXX) company I have always recommended (PT-1) is still the
cheapest, and rarely gives any problems -- and if a problem does occur where I need to use a
backup company for overseas calling, the "main long distance" company I recommend (Everdial)
has rates just about in line with what they were on WorldXChange. Avoid WorldXChange at all costs.

More AT&T Secret Rip Off News
Feb. 21 2002 Suit Claims AT&T Is Pocketing Part of Fees
From the LA Times (Feb. 21, 2002): "AT&T Corp., the biggest U.S. Long Distance
telephone company pockets almost half the money it collects for a federally mandated
residential long-distance service charge, a lawsuit alleges. The suit claims AT&T
bills residential customers 11.5% of their long distance charges for the
Universal Connectivity Charge [ie, "USF"], even though the FCC requires
telecommunications carriers to contribute only 6.8% of long-distance revenue
to the fund."

WARNING if you have VERIZON as your LOCAL PHONE COMPANY!
Jan. 2002: Beware of Verizon Slamming You Illegally!
It was announced today that Verizon has mananged to acquire 51% more customers for
their long-distance services in 2001 than the previous year. However, if what happened
to my dad and the other people I've heard from since first posting this story back in
October is any indication, much of this gain has occured through fraud:

If you thought only the long distance companies slammed people (illegally changing
customers over to themselves), think again: Verizon (the LOCAL phone company here)
illegally slammed my dad over to their long distance services in October, and since
posting this story here on the web page, I've heard from other people who have had
the exact same thing happen to them. READ CAREFULLY: this could very well happen to you,
as most of these local phone companies are now trying to get customers for their
fledgling long-distance services, and seem to be willing to use any means possible.
What happened to us was no mistake:
   On my advice, at the beginning of October, my dad decided to switch his long
distance company from Cable & Wireless to Isterra (a re-seller of WorldCom lines).
My dad had a "PIC Freeze" on his line (meaning the long-distance companies assigned
to my dad's line were "frozen" -- only changable with a WRITTEN REQUEST from my dad --
as the "PIC Freeze" is used to stop illegal switching). Verizon has a special form
to fill out if you have a PIC Freeze and wish to change your long distance company.
My dad and I filled out this form together, and FAXed it to the number indicated on
the form (a Verizon office in Texas).
   On the Verizon form, it only asks for the "PIC CODE" of the new company you wish to
have (in this case "0555", since the new company we wanted uses WorldCom lines, and
the PIC code for WorldCom lines is 0555). However just to be EXTRA CLEAR, we not only
wrote "0555" twice (for both "long distance" and "short distance toll calls"), but
ALSO wrote "WorldCom/Isterra" twice so there would be no confusion.
   It didn't matter. As soon as Verizon received a document with my dad's signature
on it, we were immediately switched not to the company we requested, but over to
Verizon, for BOTH "long distance" and "short distance toll calls."
   We found out about this on a Saturday by dialing the "700" check/verify number
(1-700-555-4141) -- but since Verizon's "customer service" offices are closed on
weekends, my dad was virtually without long distance service for the entire
weekend (yes, according to the new anti-slamming laws, he could have made calls
that weekend, and Verizon would later have to fully refund all the calls made -- but
the last thing he needed was to spend another two hours fighting with Verizon
customer service agents).
   That Monday, after 90 minutes of waiting and explaining things to one Verizon agent
after another, we were finally transferred to someone who reluctantly agreed to switch
us back to the companies we requested (though it would take until the end of the day
to go into the system).
   Immediately afterwards, we wrote a letter to Verizon's Executive Customer Service
Department asking for an explanation on how something like this could happen from a
company that supposedly disavows such tactics. Enclosing a copy of the original form
we FAXed to Verizon (so they could see firsthand just how clear it was), we pointed
out that: (1) there could be NO dispute which company we wanted -- just look at the form.
(2) We were without long distance service for three days due to the slamming. (3) If we had
been switched to another Verizon competitor (say Sprint or AT&T), one might excuse it as
a simple mistake -- but the fact that Verizon, as our local phone company, had switched us
to themselves for all long distance calls when we specifically asked for another company,
meant it was nothing but slamming, pure and simple.
   The following week we received a typical form reply, with no information on how
this could have happened, and a statement that there would be no compensation for
their slamming, as "D&R Rule No. 26 limits the damages for which Verizon is liable."
In other words, they were caught in an illegal action, and as long as they changed
back those few people who noticed it and complained, they weren't liable for anything.
   The next day we called the representative who wrote the letter, asking once again
if they had determined how this could have happened. She had no explanation -- but
reiterated that there would be no credit or compensation for their action. Finally
we brought up the fact that Verizon advertises a "service guarantee", which promises a
$25 credit when a service order is not completed on-time or correctly. Upon mentioning
this, she immediately tried to say that their service guarantee wouldn't apply to this.
When we asked her "Why? This was a service order that was (a) completed incorrectly,
(b) completed late, and (c) was illegal", she said she'd have to speak to a higher-up
supervisor. Only after letting them know we were in the process of filing a formal
complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission about this, did she finally
come back to say that they would approve their promised  "service guarantee" credit of
$25 for what had happened.
   During this whole affair, three different representatives (including this latest one)
tried to explain the slamming by using the same excuse (I wonder if it's company policy, as
they all used the same line): "Oh, it must have just been a typing mistake... the PIC codes
must have been similar, and someone just made a mistake." When this latest representative
tried to use that line on us though, we forced the issue: "So tell us, what is Verizon's
PIC Code?" She then had no choice but to tell us (as we had informed her at the start of
the call that it was being recorded), that Verizon's PIC Code is: "5483" -- not anywhere NEAR
WorldCom's "0555" -- and then incredulously still insisted that "0555" and "5483" were similar
enough to warrant an honest typing mistake.
   As an interesting postscript, when all this was finished, we called Verizon's normal
Customer Serivce line once more to re-verify Verizon's PIC Code number (it IS 5483), and
wound up speaking to probably the only Verizon agent who knew exactly what was going on.
Telling us he used to work over at Verizon's long distance division, he then began looking up
the records for my dad's phone number. Saying he was now speaking to us only as a person,
and not as a representive of Verizon, he said "yup, I can't explain why, but we slammed
you... I thought it might have been 'virtual slamming' where the switch isn't actually changed,
but nope... you were slammed. Obviously 0555 and 5483 aren't similar at all, but our office in
Texas slammed you over to us. Sorry."

Jan. 2002: It seems Verizon slamming people in their push for long-distance customers
isn't an isolated case. I received this email from a reader in Kentucky:
   "Hi Larry. I'm in the club. Verizon slammed me. I removed my PIC freeze last Monday morning
    at their phone mart so that I could have a copy of their form which stated my order. Then
    I signed up within the hour for EverDial on-line. On Tuesday I called the 700 verify number
    and was welcomed (correctly) to the Isterra/WorldCom network (for EverDial). But then today
    (Monday, 12/17) I received my slam message from Verizon welcoming me to their service. I
    had to go back to the phone mart and have EverDial restored (hopefully).

   Verizon is a local phone company in many different parts of the United States, and
like most of the local Baby Bells, they're trying their hardest to get customers for
their long-distance services. Let this story be a warning for all of you out there
to put a PIC Freeze on your line, and to watch out for your local phone company
trying to slam you -- they will do it just as much as the long distance companies.
I keep wondering about how many other unknowing customers Verizon has done this
to.. long distance is a hobby of mine, but most people don't know as much about it
as I do. How much money is Verizon making getting away with this -- as other than
having to switch customers who notice it back, they have to pay no penalty if caught?

Lawmakers Looking into AT&T's Rip-Off "Tax" Hike
Jan. 2002: [From the LA Times, Jan 9. 2002]: "Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) has asked
   federal regulators to investigate whether AT&T Corp. is 'padding its pockets' after the
   long-distance giant... announced last month that it would raise a key long-distance fee it
   charges its customers [the "USF"] to 11.5% of their monthly bill on Jan. 1st."
Most long distance companies charge between 6%-9% for this USF "tax" (described in the "Big Long
Distance Customer Rip Off" section of this web page), and many charge it only on certain parts
of the bill. AT&T has now started charging 11.5% of their customers' entire bills, the highest
(by far) of anyone in the industry, and as the new investigation shows, there is a belief that AT&T
is charging their customers a huge percentage in the name of a "tax", but keeping most of it to
themselves (something AT&T has done in the past with the old, now-discontinued PICC tax). 

Long Distance Rates To Rise In New Year
Jan. 2002: Excerpted From the LA Times [Dec. 27, 2001]: After nearly
two decades of cut-throat competition, the nation's largest carriers are quietly trying
to reverse the trend through higher fees and less aggressive promotions. The companies
have launched a two-front offensive to get more money from customers. One one front,
the companies are using outright rate increases, on the other, they are adding new
monthly fees and raising little-noticed charges. MCI/WorldCom plans 14 separate price
increases in their various plans. AT&T, which raised rates 11% last summer by 11% for
about half of its subscribers, plans an icrease that will hit all of its 60 million
customers. The increase will come from a fee buried in the fine print of phone bills,
charging customers a fee equal to 11.5% of their total calling charges, up from 9.9%.
Under federal rules, the long-distance carriers must pay the government about 7% of
revenues for this fee [the "USF"]. Though the carriers pay almost 7% into the USF fund,
most charge customers 9.9%, and AT&T is planning to charge 11.5%.

AT&T, Sprint, WorldCom Rip America Off Again!
Oct. 2001: Since the last update of this page, the "Big 3" major long distance
companies have initiated yet ANOTHER bogus fee in an attempt to extract more money
from their consumers (why do people still stay with these companies?) From a recent
LA Times article:
   "A group of state regulators is publicly chastising AT&T Corp.,
   MCI WorldCom and Sprint Corp. for charging customers a new $1.50 monthly fee for
   the convenience of receiving local and long-distance charges on one bill. The
   regulators said the new charge "amounts to a rate increase," and openly
   questioned the rationale and fairness of the fee, which has not been widely
   publicized until recently..."
Let's see now... the long distance companies are saving money by not having to
print out and mail a separate bill to their customers who select this option
(instead having the charges appear on the local phone bill), and they pass their
savings along to customers by CHARGING them $1.50 convenience fee? Gee, nice to
know they respect their customers. Funny how none of the smaller companies are
initiating such charges (even the super-cheap dialarounds). I can't say it
enough: if you're with the Big 3, LEAVE THEM.

PICC Fee Discontinued -- but other fees raised
August 2000: As of July 2000, the FCC has abolished the "PICC Fee"
(Presubscribed Interexchange Carrier Charge), a tax that appeared
on everyone's long distance bills. When this fee first took effect,
it was set at 53c for a single-line residential household, but was
later raised to $1.04... however, this was one of the many fees that
certain long distance companies (including AT&T, Sprint, MCI/WorldCom,
and several others) secretly bloated in order to get some hidden profit
for themselves from uninformed consumers, charging up to three times the
amount they were supposed to (as reported on this web page).
Well, as of July 2000, there will be no more PICC fee, meaning it's one
less tax to find on your long distance bill. However in order to compensate
for lost revenue, the FCC raised the "Subscriber Line Charge" (billed
by your local phone company) from $3.50 to $4.35. 

If you have any questions about this or any other telecom fees, the
FCC keeps an 800 number consumer helpline at: 1-888-225-5322.
The pre-recorded information on this FCC helpline does NOT get
updated regularly, and are often terribly out-of-date, but you can speak
to a live person during normal business hours: just press "0" a bunch
of times to bypass the voice mail prompts and outdated information.


BEWARE OF THE NEW AT&T/SPRINT PLANS!
Don't be mis-led by the unending barrage of commercials for
the new plans from AT&T, Sprint and the like, promising
"low" per-minute rates (such as 7c/min). These plans come with
a HEFTY surcharge -- not to mention expensive per-minute rates!
In AT&T's case, it will cost you $5.95 each month to get that "cheap"
7c/min plan. Why would you want to spend $5.95 a month for a 7c/min
plan when you can get a 4.9c/min plan from a competitor with NO
monthly fee (and can avoid paying the hefty additional surcharges
AT&T charges their customers as well -- see the "Which Companies
Do I Recommend?" section). Plans like these (offered by many companies,
not just AT&T and Sprint), are the biggest rip-offs in the long-distance
industry. Don't be suckered in! NEVER select a long distance plan with
ANY type of monthly fee. You'll never come out ahead:

*You're charged a $5.95 monthly fee every month, regardless of
 how many (or how little) calls you place that month.
*The rate of 7c a minute is no bargain! There are plenty of other
 companies offering CHEAPER rates (ie, 4.9c) with NO monthly fees or tricks!
*Unlike other companies, the calls in these plans are rounded up to
 the next highest minute. If you talk for 40 seconds, you'll be charged
 for a full minute. If you talk for 1.5 minutes, you'll be charged for 2.
*These plans also rip you off with incredibly high rates on other
 services such as charging $1.10 for out-of-state directory assistance
 (while other companies charge 65c-75c).

September 2000 Update: MCI/WorldCom has become even worse recently,
as it raised its fees for these plans with virtually NO
notice (notification of the rate increases came only in the
August 2000 bills, as they were about to take effect),
raising both the monthly fee (now $5.95) and promised
rates (plans that had 7c/min are now 9c/min), as well as
cutting promised discounts (on-line billing customers now
only get $1 off a month instead of $2) -- and rates for
calls WITHIN your own state ("INTRAstate" rates) on
these plans are now incredibly high -- often twice the
cost of a call to another state. Do you ever find this
information promoted? Of course not. For California, the
cost of an in-state call with one of these MCI plans is
now 10c/min even AFTER paying a $5.95 monthly fee!

I can't say it enough: AVOID THESE PLANS! AVOID THESE PLANS!
There are many, many other long distance companies out there
with BOTH lower rates AND no monthly fees, and if you're with
one of these plans, the long distance companies consider you to
be the proverbial "sucker born every minute."

Required Minimums
July 2000 Update
This news has been changing lately, but for quite a while, the larger
long distance companies (AT&T, WorldCom) began requiring minimums,
imposing a penalty on anyone who didn't make a certain amount of
long distance calls each month. You should check with your current
long distance company to see if such minimums are in effect -- if they
are, I STRONGLY advise you to leave that company. AT&T has recently
recinded their minimums, though other companies may still require them.
It is especially important for anyone who has a phone line
that they rarely use for outgoing long-distance calls (such as
a FAX or modem line) check to make sure that the long-distance
company selected for those lines are NOT ones that impose fees for low
usage -- otherwise, you'll be billed by them for not having used them
enough! You can verify which long distance company any of your telephone
lines are hooked up to by dialing (toll-free) 1-700-555-4141. A recording
will tell you which company is handling long distance for that particular
line.

Another warning to those people who access AT&T by dialing
10-10-288: AT&T now charges you a $3.00 fee for accessing
the AT&T network (by dialing 10-10-288) if you are not an
official AT&T customer -- even IF you place more than $3.00
a month in AT&T calls. If you call to inquire about rates,
the AT&T reps will never mention this fact -- but just wait
until your bill arrives. Not only is the $3.00 fee there, but
it is NOT ITEMIZED SEPARATELY on your bill, but rather, just
gets tacked onto the cost of one of the actual calls. For
instance, if you place a call to Sweden using AT&T by dialing
10-10-288, and the cost should be (for example) $4.88 for that
call, the bill will show the call costing $7.88 instead (with
the $3.00 fee being hidden in the price of the actual call,
hoping people won't notice the extra $3.00).


Are you paying too much for Long Distance?

Almost without a doubt, the answer to this question is "Yes". If you
are with any of the major Long Distance companies (AT&T, MCI/WorldCom, Sprint)
directly, you're paying MUCH more than you need to for your phone
calls no matter WHAT "savings" plan you might have with them. As
well, the Big 3 have started ripping off their unknowing customers
by tacking hidden profits onto FCC surcharges (see "Are You Being
Ripped Off", below).

*What's wrong with having AT&T, MCI/WorldCom, or Sprint?
   Nothing, unless you like paying three times more than you need to.
   Even with the Big 3's best "savings plans", you're still "paying
   retail" for your long distance, and paying rates higher than
   anyone else.

*What's the best route then, if not with the Big 3?
   Smaller companies and "re-sellers" can now offer virtually every
   service the Big 3 offer, at rates far less. I myself prefer using
   a "re-seller". A re-seller is a company that buys lines from the
   large carriers in bulk, and is then able to "re-sell" them to customers
   at substantial savings over what you'd pay for the same call directly
   with the Big 3. Since the same lines are being used, the quality is
   just as good -- only the rates are substantially lower. Re-selling
   is a huge business in the U.S., and has been for years. Most people
   just don't know about it.

For example: both my dad and I have used re-sellers for some time now.
They offer the same high-quality lines (from AT&T, MCI/WorldCom, Sprint,
Cable & Wireless, etc) that are used to complete your call when you're
with these companies directly -- except they offer them at rates far
less than you'd get by signing up with these large companies themselves
(currently in the range of 5c-8c/min for state-to-state calls, 24hrs
a day), and offer such advantages as 6-second billing, cheaper
directory assistance rates, and NO monthly fees, minimums, strings,
or restrictions. The in-state rates are just as good: for California
(I live in California), the rate can be as low as 3.5c/min for all
calls within the state, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week with NO fees of
any kind for the plan.

Here's the dirty little secret that no one wants you to know:
Long distance is CHEAP. For that 5c-8c minute, the large company whose
lines are being re-sold is making a profit, as well as the re-selling
company, AND the re-seller's agent -- yet even WITH all these extra
people involved, everyone STILL makes a profit. THAT'S how cheap long
distance really is. If the re-seller, the re-seller's agents, and the
company whose lines are being resold can all make a profit from selling
5c long distance minutes with no additional fees of any kind, imagine
how much profit the Big 3 are making each time you pay them 18c for that
minute directly! Re-selling is a way for everyone to be happy. The large
companies get their time sold in bulk, the re-sellers who buy it
(and their agents) can both make good profits by re-selling it, and
consumers can get long distance rates far better than anything the large
companies would ever offer them directly.

*Is there a drawback to using a re-seller?
   No -- but shop carefully. Choose a large one, with a 24 hour
   toll-free customer service line, and one that re-sells good lines
   from companies like AT&T, WorldCom, Cable & Wireless and Sprint so
   you'll never have trouble. Also, avoid some smaller re-sellers that
   DO charge a monthly fee (usually $5.00/month) for their service.
   The better ones NEVER charge ANY fees, and have equal or better
   rates than those that do. Like anything else, do a bit of research.

*What about incoming 800 numbers, phone cards and other services?
   Major re-sellers offer these services too, at comparable cheap
   rates. There is absolutely NO reason to stay with one of the
   large long distance providers directly. Businesses have been
   buying time in bulk for years, yet most consumers don't know that
   they can do the same.

*What about 10-10-XXX "dial-around" companies?
   If you're lucky enough to live in an area where a decent dial-around
   company is offereing a good rate, there can be some good deals
   to be had, especially on particular types of calls. You might find
   a dial-around to be your best bet on international calls, in-state,
   or state-to-state calls -- but to date, I've yet to find a dial-around
   company that has been better on all types of calls. Thus, it's
   ok to look (CAREFULLY) at some of these dial-around companies, but
   a dial-around company is not a substitute for having a good, decent
   regular "1+" long distance company attached to your phone line.
   You must also be very careful of the fine print: many dial-arounds
   offering rates like 5c/min have plenty of hidden fees and surcharges
   (such as per-call connection charges, monthly fees, or per-call minimums).
   When you see an ad touting a cheap per-minute rate, there is but one
   very important rule of thumb:  Read the fine print. Read the fine print!!

   Note also that not all dial-arounds offer the same deal in all areas:
   Someone who stumbled across my web page emailed me about a company called
   Clear Choice Communications (10-10-636). They were advertising a great
   rate of 5c/min 24hrs a day for both state-to-state calls, and in-state
   calls to this person. However, the way they operate is that only people
   living in selected areas of the country were able to qualify for
   these rates. For people living in other parts of the country, the rates
   were much more -- sometimes 3x as high. "Clear Choice" is none other than
   long-time dialaround company "Vartec" (10-10-811) trying to go under yet
   another name and 10-10-XXX number to hide who they really are. Vartec has
   done some sleazy things in years past, though to be fair, lately, they've
   cleaned up their act a bit, doing away with their monthly service fees, and
   lowering their rates. Still, the story with their 10-10-636 "Clear Choice"
   plan demonstrates just how varible these rates can be depending on where
   you live.

   This is not to say that using a dial-around (10-10-XXX) company is
   necessarily bad -- if you shop carefully, some do offer decent plans,
   especially if you're lucky enough to live in an area where
   a company is offering an attractive plan. But be VERY careful:

   Many of the 10-10-XXX companies offering low rates (such as a 5c/min)
   have hidden fees that you probably won't find out about until it's
   too late, unless you take the time to read the fine print. Many charge
   a "connection" fee for each call placed (sometimes 99c per call!) Many
   have minimum call lengths, and many still charge a monthly service fee
   (usually $5.00) for using them even once. These types of fees virtually
   wipe out any "savings" you might have thought you'd be getting with the
   low advertised rate.

   10-10-321 (MCI / Telecom USA) and 10-10-345 (AT&T / Lucky Dog): (*Sigh*). If
   people only knew. "10-10-321" is really MCI. Fearing a loss of customers
   to re-sellers, MCI bought Telecom USA (10-10-321) a few years ago, and has
   been promoting it like crazy ever since. 10-10-321's rates are NO BARGAIN.
   They (along with AT&T-owned "Lucky Dog"/10-10-345) have rates and fees
   MUCH higher than others in the industry. Avoid both "10-10-345/Lucky Dog"
   and "10-10-321" at all costs, unless you like throwing money away to higher
   rates and hidden fees.

   Three additional comments on 10-10-321:
   (1) It's almost impossible for most people to get ahold of
   10-10-321 to find out rates and ask questions BEFORE placing a 
   call -- unless you happen to know their true name (Telecom USA).
   Most people wanting to get information on the service BEFORE
   using them will find doing so virtually impossible.
   (2) 10-10-321 was caught continually over-charging customers with
   rates far higher than those advertised. Those customers that looked
   over their bills with a fine-tooth comb, noticed the over-charging,
   and called to complain were given refunds -- but not until the FCC
   FORCED 10-10-321 to do so did they finally have to "agree" to
   refund ALL the over-charged money, in August 1998.
   (3) Recently, I had to make a number of short (1 minute) calls to
   South Africa to send some FAXes. Just to experiment, I tried using
   four dial-arounds (10-16-868, 10-10-629, 10-10-811, and 10-10-321).
   The first three had comparable rates to each other (in the 30-40c
   range). 10-10-321, for the same one-minute call at the same time of
   day was $1.53 -- and had I placed the call a few hours later, it
   would have been over $2.00. Do yourself a favor, and spend 5 minutes
   looking into how much 10-10-321 really charges.

   Note: In the LINKS section at the end of this page, there's a link
   to a good web page that keeps track of all the different 10-10-XXX
   dial-around companies and the current deals they're offering. It's
   worth checking this page out.

   WARNING: If you use a 7-digit access number to reach a long distance
   company's lines, AND ARE NOT IN THAT COMPANY'S DATABASE, you could be
   billed at the "open network" rate -- which can be as high as $1.50
   a minute. NEVER, EVER use an access code to place a call unless you
   know FOR SURE that either: (a) the phone you're calling from has been
   entered in that company's database with a rate-plan you approve of,
   or (b) you've read ALL the fine print in the company's advertising
   about their rates and possible service fees for a non-database
   customer.


Another Way To Save Money: Over-riding Local Toll Calls

Another way to save money is to use your long-distance company to place your
"local toll calls" (calls about 8-15 miles from your house) rather than the
local phone company, as most of the time a good long-distance company will
have far better rates than your local phone company. The problem is that these
"local toll" calls automatically get routed to your local company to handle
(Verizon, Bell, etc.), and there's nothing you can do about it -- UNLESS YOU
OVERRIDE IT YOURSELF.

For instance, here in California, I have Verizon as a local phone company, and currently
use EverDial as my long-distance company. EverDial charges only 3.5c/min for ALL calls
within California, billed in 6-second increments -- but Verizon can be as much as 12c/min
(billed in full-minute increments) for the local toll calls. So instead of throwing away
my money to Verizon, I manually take these calls away from them, and throw them over to
my long distance company.

"Local Toll Calls" are those calls that are approximatley 8-15 miles away from your
house -- not far enough to be considered "long distance" (to be sent to your
long distance company), but not close enough to be considered local/free (and thus
get billed by your local phone company).

*Make sure the number you're calling IS actually a toll call, and not local/free :)

*Assuming your long distance company offers better in-state rates than your local
phone company charges for their toll calls (almost certainly the case), call up
your long distance company and ask them what their "10-10" number is.
EXAMPLE: the "10-10" number for EverDial Long Distance is "10-10-555".

*To force the call to be completed via your long distance company:
   *DIAL YOUR LONG DISTANCE COMPANY'S 10-10 NUMBER
   *DIAL 1+AREA-CODE (EVEN IF THE NUMBER YOU'RE CALLING IS IN THE SAME AREA CODE AS YOU!)
   *DIAL THE REMAINING NUMBER

Example: "Mr. X" lives in the (310) area code, and wants to call a friend also in
the (310) area code, but it's a local toll call. Mr X. has EverDial long distance,
which offers cheaper rates than his Verizon/Bell local phone company. EverDial's
"10-10" code is "10-10-555". Here's what Mr. X does to call his friend at "234-5678":
   10-10-555-1-310-234-5678

Yes, it means dialing extra digits, but as long as you know that the call is a toll
call (and isn't local/free) you'd be surprised how much money you can save. The
current situation won't let you automatically select a competitor to your local
phone company for these local toll calls, but you CAN force the calls away from
your local phone company and onto your cheaper long distance company by over-riding
using the method above. I do it all the time and save a bundle (not to mention it
takes business away from my monopoly local phone company).


Are you being ripped off?

August 2000
NOTE: This section is now thankfully out-of-date. As of July 2000,
the FCC has abolished the PICC fee described in this section.

However, what most of the long distance companies have done over the
past few years makes a perfect example of their business philosophy,
and I believe it is important that everyone read this section to get
a clear idea of how even the biggest companies out there will stop at
nothing to rip you off as much as they can. The secret stealing described
in this section went on for years with the FCC's knowledge, and ripped
off millions of unsuspecting Americans. Even though there is no longer a
PICC fee, I hope that by leaving this information up here a bit longer
for people to read, consumers will realize that it's in their own best
interest to examine their phone company with a fine-tooth comb. It's
a perfect example of how the long distance companies make their money:
by advertising low per-minute rates, and secretly stealing from you
by inflating taxes...


*What's this about phone companies ripping me off on FCC surcharges?
   (*Sigh*). Again, the best consumer is a well-informed one... so
   here's the scoop. When a long distance company places a call for
   you, they have to pay some fees to the local phone companies in
   both the town where the call originates from, and the town where
   the call winds up. The FCC ruled that for each 1-telephone-line
   household, the local phone companies could charge the long distance
   companies $1.04 (more if you have more than one line). The long
   distance companies decided to pass this fee onto us, the consumer.
   However, what you may not know is that most long distance companies
   have bloated this $1.04 fee with hidden profit for themselves.
   AT&T, Sprint, MCI, and many, many others are now doing this, yet
   the FCC seems perfectly willing to let this continue, even though
   they are fully aware of this practice. The long distance companies
   know that most consumers have no idea how much this tax should
   be -- and have been quietly ripping off millions of unknowing
   customers by charging much more for this fee than they're supposed
   to -- keeping the difference as pure profit (then deceitfully
   listing the full amount on the bill as a tax). Sprint even sent
   out a mailing a while back when the fee was first introduced
   (at that time, the official amount of the PICC fee was 53c, not
   $1.04), claiming that it wanted to be "up front" about the fee.
   It mentioned that all long distance companies were burdened with
   the "Presubscribed Line Charge", but conveniently "forgot" to
   mention that Sprint only had to pay out 53c for each $1.50 it
   collected from its customers in the name of this tax. Now that
   the official amount has gone up (from 53c to $1.04 a month), the
   bloating as gone up as well, with most of the major long distance
   companies charging from $1.50 - $2.50 for this $1.04 fee. This is
   pure profit you're paying these companies each and every month,
   because they know they can sneak it by most people without anyone
   noticing. Back when this fee was 53c, and the long distance
   companies first began to bloat it, the FCC's official web page
   suggested writing to your long distance company if you were
   unhappy about such practices. I suggest you change companies,
   unless you like being taken advantage of in such a deceitful
   fashion. Not all long distance companies scam their customers
   the way the Big 3 do.

   NOTE: If you want more information on this fee, click here.
   This is a link to an updated FCC page about the $1.04 PICC fee.
   While reading this page, you'll notice that the FCC mentions that
   the $1.04 amount is the MAXIMUM that the long distance companies
   might have to pay the local telephone companies. It is not
   mandated that consumers pay this fee -- the long distance companies
   decided themselves to pass this fee onto us -- and not just the
   maximum $1.04 that the long distance companies might have to pay
   the local telephone companies, but a lot more. Keep THAT in mind
   the next time you examine your bill from one of the Big 3.

   NOTE: Many people have emailed me, asking if it's possible to avoid
   having to pay this fee by completely unsubscribing a phone number
   from all long distance companies. Unfortunately, this won't work
   (I actually tried this myself last year). What happens is: if you
   call your local phone company and ask them to take all long distance
   companies off your number, your local phone company will then start
   billing you this PICC fee. Back when the fee was 53c, my own local
   telephone company (GTE) billed me at the correct 53c rate (but still
   billed me for it). However, I recently received an email from someone
   in New York who had tried to do the same thing -- and he reported that
   the local NY phone company had billed him $1.50 for the (now) $1.04
   fee, bloating the tax the way many of the long distance companies do.
   There's not much of a solution, except to find a long distance company
   that doesn't try to rip you off on this $1.04 tax.
 
   NOTE: there's another "FCC-fee" scandal involving payphones
   and calling cards (see "Calling Cards", below).


The Big Long Distance Customer Rip-Off


January 2002 Update:
The current suggested amount of the USF "tax" (described below) can change quarterly.
In August 2000, the FCC told me the correct amount should be "between 5%-6%." It now stands
at just under 7%. However, most companies charge their customers 9.9% (pocketing the rest
as pure, hidden profit), and as of January 1st, 2002, AT&T is now charging all 60 million
of its customers 11.5% of their total bill in the name of this fake "tax" (for which they
must give back less than 7%). Representative John Dingell (D-Mich) has just asked federal
investigators to investigate whether AT&T is "padding their pockets" with this new hike,
but this does little to protect those customers still with AT&T from being fleeced. AT&T
(and the other large carries) have a history of charging much more for taxes and fees than
they should, and keeping the rest as profit (witness what occured with the now-scrapped
PICC fee from a few years ago). One thing to note: when comparing long distance companies,
don't just look at the per-minute charge, but ask how much they charge for their USF tax -- and
whether it is figured on the ENTIRE BILL (as AT&T does), or just on certain calls (ie, only
state-to-state or international calls, as the better long distance companies that don't charge
the tax on in-state calls will save customers quite a bit each month in this fake tax).

If you want more information on this or any other telephone "tax",
the FCC keeps a toll-free consumer help number at: 1-888-225-5322
(note that in order to speak to a live person, you must call
during business hours, and press "0" a few times to bypass all
the automatic information junk -- much of which is outdated).

Feb. 2002 Update:
From the LA Times (Feb. 21, 2002): "AT&T Corp., the biggest U.S. Long Distance
telephone company pockets almost half the money it collects for a federally mandated
residential long-distance service charge, a lawsuit alleges. The suit claims AT&T
bills residential customers 11.5% of their long distance charges for the
Universal Connectivity Charge [ie, "USF"], even though the FCC requires
telecommunications carriers to contribute only 6.8% of long-distance revenue
to the fund." (End Update)

As of July 1st 1998, AT&T, MCI/WorldCom, and just about every other
long distance company have started charging their customers a
huge new surcharge. Often itemized as "USF" on your bill, and
disguised as a tax, it is in reality nothing but a deceitful
profit scheme, designed to take more money from you.
   When the fee first started, MCI/WorldCom began charging this
"tax" at 5.9% of a customer's long distance calls EVERY MONTH
(4.9% for business customers), and as time has gone by, most
companies now set the amount between 8%-12%. AT&T was even worse
in the past, charging a flat 99c for this fee (regardless of usage),
knowing that most of their customers are low-volume long-distance
users. Then in the fall of 1999, AT&T petitioned the FCC to allow them
to charge an even higher amount -- a flat $1.50 per phone number -- for
this fake tax. This would have meant that everyone from students to the
elderly who have AT&T would be paying AT&T yet another $1.50 in pure
profit even if they only made 20c in long distance calls that month
(or no calls at all -- it wouldn't matter, since it's a flat amount).
In October 1999, the FCC rejected the increase:

   "The Federal Communications Commission late yesterday declined
   a request from AT&T Corp. to increase the fees it charges its 
   residential long-distance customers by 51 cents a month and
   launched an investigation of the company's prices...
   ...It also announced plans to investigate how AT&T handles
   the fees it collects for the federal funds."
   [Washington Post, Saturday October 30, 1999, Page E01].

However today AT&T charges one of the highest rates in the industry for
their USF "tax": at last check, it was 9.9%.

   Regardless of how the amount is figured (percentage or flat
amount), this "tax" is still a fraud. The money being collected
is SUPPOSED to help defer costs for installing low-cost internet
connections in schools and libraries -- except that the money is
NOT going to these programs at all, but rather to the long distance
companies THEMSELVES.  The FCC is aware of this, and has made
some angry comments, but seems unwilling to take any legal
action, and lets this practice continue.

What happened was this: everyone thought it would be a good
idea to help wire schools and libraries across the country to
the internet. The large long distance companies who would be
providing these hookups complained to Congress that it would
cost a fortune to do so (even though the FCC estimates that in
reality, these low-cost connections cost the long distance
companies only $1 PER LINE PER MONTH). So, Congress made a deal
with the long distance companies to which they all agreed: if
they didn't try to bill their CUSTOMERS for the cost of these
connections, Congress would get the FCC to LOWER the fees that
the long distance companies have to pay LOCAL phone companies
to have their calls completed. (Thus, AT&T, MCI, and the other
long distance companies were to take the money the FCC was saving
them, and use it to pay for the library internet connections).
After promising Congress they wouldn't try to pass the cost onto
their customers, the long distance companies received the fee cuts
from the FCC -- and immediately broke their word and decided to
charge their customers anyway -- at a rate of 5%-6% of EVERY
CUSTOMER'S TOTAL MONTHLY BILL (the amount NOW averages close to
10%). AT&T was the first to break their word; MCI was second, and
soon just about evey other long distance company followed suit.
Infuriating consumer groups is that the long distance companies have
been telling their customers that these new fees are to pay for
low-cost library and school internet connections, when these
connections have already been PAID for by the FCC fee breaks.
   Sound phoney? You bet.
   FCC chairman Bill Kennard said these fees were "unwarranted".
The lower fees the FCC granted the long distance companies will
save them $2 BILLION a year -- $2 BILLION a year meant to go towards
these internet connections (which, remember, cost the long distance
companies only $1 per line per month), yet AT&T, MCI, and the rest
of the long distance industry have happily decided to give the
finger to the FCC and Congress, and are now charging their customers
millions of dollars a month -- collected in the "name" of these
programs, but actually having nothing to do with them.

      From the LA Times (June 6, 1998): "Last May, AT&T Corp.
   promised Congress it would not pass along the additional cost
   of the subsidies for schools and libraries to customers if
   regulators agreed to reduce the special fees that long distance
   carriers pay local phone firms to handle the local portion of
   toll calls. The FCC agreed to that plan. But last month, AT&T
   reversed itself...(and) MCI Communications quickly followed suit."

   The FCC -- seemingly impotent -- seems more concerned with how these
new fake charges are ITEMIZED on customer's bills rather than actually
trying to make the long distance companies keep their promise and get RID
of them. Jim Casserly (aide to FCC Commmissioner Susan Ness) said simply
"Our concerns are when consumers are not given accurate and complete
information" (about the charges that appear on their bills -- noting that
the bills don't point out that the long distance companies have already
been given a break on access charges to help pay for internet connections).

   ALL long distance companies now charge this fake tax, adding an additional
8%-12% at the bottom of the bill -- on TOP of their long distance rates -- and
remember, the companies themselves are keeping this money for themselves while
they tell you it's a tax. It's not.

*What can I do?
   Nothing much, except to know what's going on, and keep this "fake tax"
in mind when comparing rates. Customers always focus on the per-minute rates
advertised, not realizing that they're being fleeced mostly from these bloated
taxes. Find out HOW MUCH a long distance company charges for the USF (whether 
it be 7.9%, 9.9%, or -- as AT&T is now doing, 11.5% -- and ask if it's figured
from ALL LONG DISTANCE CALLS (the biggest rip-off, as AT&T does), or just on
state-to-state and international calls (not in-state) calls, the way some of
the better, smaller companies do (saving you money). People need to realize that
these bloated taxes are just (if not more) important to know when comparing
companies than the per-minute charges.


JULY 2000 UPDATE:
       AT&T LIES TO AMERICA AGAIN!

Just when you thought AT&T couldn't get any worse...

In an attempt to lower long-distance costs to consumers even more, the
FCC ONCE AGAIN lowered the costs the long-distance companies have to
pay local companies to complete their calls in the summer of 2000. The
amount of the redution of these access fees? $3.2 BILLION dollars.
The long distance companies were to take this money saved and pass the
savings onto their customers. What did AT&T do? They RAISED their rates
just days after the fee reductions were announced. Then, due to the incredible
amount of negative publicity and the backlash it created, AT&T announced
they would cancel their rake hikes. Of course, this didn't last. On Friday
June 23, 2000 -- two weeks after the initial cancelled rate increases,
AT&T announced they would be raising their basic long distance rates 13%-40%.
This just about a month after the FCC saved AT&T and the other industry
carriers $3.2 BILLION in costs that they were to have passed onto consumers.

Is AT&T really a company you want to be with?


The Directory Assistance Game

UPDATE! November 2005
There is now a brand new way to get nationwide directory assistance for free -- and even
get calls placed for free! A company called Jingle Networks just started a service called
"1-800-FREE-411" which provides free nationwide directory assistance to users anywhere
in the US (even when calling from celphones or payphones!) This is GREAT for cel phone
and frequent payphone users (where directory assistance can be extremely expensive), though
it's also good from the home phone too.

Here's how it works: Call 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-373-3411). A computerized voice will ask
you the city and state for the listing you want, then ask if it's a business, government,
or residential listing. Then it will ask you for the name, and proceed to look it up.
While it looks up the number, you have to listen to a 10-second ad (it's free because it's
advertiser-supported). After the ad, it will give you the number -- and then tell you that
if you want to be connected to that number for free, just stay on the line. I tried it a few
times, and sure enough, it works. There IS a time-limit on the free-connection though, and
after about 5 minutes you'll hear a computerized voice say "60 seconds left" to give you
time to finish your call.

A few notes on the service:

* The voice-recognition on the computer is OK but not great. If the computer can't understand you
  after a few attempts, a live person will come on the line that you can speak to and will get you
  the number.

* You can technically use it to just place free calls (you just have to not mind the hassle and time
  of having it look up the number each time you want to call somebody). But it might be good to keep
  in mind in case of emergencies -- for instance, if you have no coins and are stranded somewhere
  and need to place a call. Just keep in mind though, that it will only place calls to numbers it
  can look up -- in other words, numbers that are listed (unlisted numbers -- such as most cel phone
  numbers -- won't work. If the service can't find the number listed, it can't connect the call).

* The ads are targeted, and especially if you're looking for a business listing, will try to entice
  you away to a competitor (this is a selling point on their website to get new advertisers). For
  instance, if you ask for the number of "Pizza Hut" in "Huntington Beach, CA", the ad while you
  wait for the number might be "Right now Domino's near you has a special on pizza" -- and then it
  will give you the option to either get the number you originally requested, or instead change your
  mind and be connected to the local Domino's. Clever idea.

* I wonder how long this service will last. But if you don't mind an ad (you can always just drop the
  phone for 10 seconds so you don't have to listen to the ad), this is a great way to get free directory
  assistance, and short calls placed for free -- even from payphones or cel phones!

End of November 2005 Update

Do you live in California, and need to get the phone number of
someone in New York? Do you live in Michigan, and need the phone
number of someone in Idaho? Remember back 10 years ago when
out-of-area directory assistance was free? Not anymore -- and the
large 3 long distance companies are charging an arm and a leg to
place the call for you. Even worse, with many companies, each time
you ask the question "how much is it?" to a customer service
representative, you're likely to get a different answer. With AT&T
(which charges $1.10), I received three different answers
("75c", "95c", "1.10") each of the three times I called.
Here's something to think about: why does AT&T, Cable & Wireless,
and MCI charge their direct customers so much more than the smaller
long distance companies (that do nothing but re-sell the very
same AT&T, C&W, and MCI lines) do? (Isn't the answer obvious?)

Here's the cost for each out-of-area directory assistance call:
MCI/WorldCom (as a direct customer of theirs):       $1.10
MCI/WorldCom (through Lightyear):                    $0.65
MCI/WorldCom (through EverDial):                     $0.95
Cable & Wireless (as a direct customer of theirs):   $1.50 (as of Oct. 15 2000)
Cable & Wireless (through LD Direct)                 $ .75
AT&T:                                                $1.10
Sprint:                                              $1.10 (approx*)

(*Sprint lets your LOCAL phone company place the out-of-area
directory assistance calls, instead of themselves. The cost
varies with each local phone company, but is comparible to
what AT&T and MCI charge).

"Dial-Around" Directory Assistance:
You may have seen ads for a new type of directory assistance service
called "10-10-9000". The ads talk about how easy it is to get a number
using 10-10-9000, and how you don't even have to know the area code of
the person you're trying to find -- just the city that person lives in.
Then, the ads state, they'll even place the call for you with no connect
fee. Well, there may be no additional "connect fee", but the cost for
placing the call -- and for getting the number -- is anything but free.

10-10-9000 is a new service being offered by MCI. For 99c, you
can call 10-10-9000, give them the city the person or company
whose number you need is located in, and request the number.
Note that while 99c is less than the $1.10 MCI charges its own
loyal customers (ironic, isn't it?), it's still vastly more than
the 65c-85c that better long distance companies (such as UniDial)
charge their customers for this service. As far as the added
"benefit" of not needing to know the area code of the person
whose number you want (only the city) -- big deal. As long as
you know the city, you can call your local operator ("0"), and
ask THEM (for NO CHARGE) what area code that particular city
is in. The whole purpose of MCI starting 10-10-9000 is to try
to make more people use MCI long distance. After spending 99c
to get a number (paying much more than you need to), MCI then
tries to convince you to let them place the call FOR you --
with no "connect charge", but at MCI's extremely high basic
residential rates. WATCH OUT!

The best (and cheapest) way to get an out-of-area number:
(1) If you don't know the area code (but just the city), call
your local operator (dial "0") and ask what the area code is
for that particular city. This is always free.
(2) Call directory assistance yourself, using:
            1-(area code)-555-1212.
If you're with a decent long distance company, the total cost
will be in the 65c-85c range. If you're with a long distance
company charging you more ($1.10+), you might consider changing,
as many of the better re-sellers also have more reasonable
directory assistance rates.

One additional option would be to use your calling card (even
while at home) for out-of-area directory assistance calls -- if
your calling card has a good rate, that is. Some calling cards
do offer cheaper directory assistance rates, and if the call
is placed from home (where a payphone surchage won't be tacked
on), it might be cheaper to use it -- call your calling card
company to ask for their current rates.

Feb. 2002 Update: Another (free) option to find out a number
is to use the internet. There are a number of websites out there that offer
telephone number look-ups (for both white pages and yellow pages) and are
completely free. Some of the many web sites that offer such services are
Lycos White Pages (under "Search Type" select "Phone"), Lycos Yellow Pages,
or 411.com.



Calling Cards

Scroll Down For Decembver 2002 Update
NOTE: In the Spring of 1999, the FCC lowered the payphone surcharge
(described in the section below) from 28.4c to 24c!
Most calling card companies charge 30c-60c for this 24c fee, taking
the rest as hidden profit.

Calling cards are yet another area where a little knowledge can save you a LOT of money. *How much should calling cards cost now? A good calling card shouldn't cost you more than 14c-15c/min, billed in 6-second increments, and have NO additional fees, surcharges, minimums, or strings -- and NOT rip you off on the new "payphone tax" (see below). As has lately become common, watch out also for monthly fees to use a card -- some of the low-cost calling cards (such as Accqlink) have a $1-$2 monthly fee anytime the card is used in that month... which quickly wipes out any savings you might have seen from their rates. There ARE still other good choices out there that do NOT try to rip you off with fee after fee after fee. *What about 1-800-COLLECT or 1-800-CALL-ATT? They promise 10c/min. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you... Every call you place with 1-800-COLLECT (in reality, MCI) or 1-800-CALL-ATT (AT&T), gets hit with a huge surcharge of $1.89. Even if you call in the evening and get their "10c/min" rate, with the surcharge, just a 30-second call will cost you $1.99, and a 4-minute call will cost $2.29 (57c/min). It's even more if you use the service during the day. Not really a bargain, is it? Both these services are incredible rip-offs, especially when you consider that the very same 4-minute/$2.29 call would cost you only 60c, or the 30-second/$1.89 call would cost you only .08c with a decent calling card. $1.89 vs $.08? Can you think of one reason to use these services? I realize that in a way, this is comparing apples to oranges (since both 1-800-COLLECT and 1-800-CALL-ATT are "call-collect" services rather that calling cards), but a lot of people wind up using them because they're not aware of the alternatives. With rate differences like this, and a good calling card costing literally only pennies, what incentive is there to even think about using 1-800-COLLECT or 1-800-CALL-ATT? *What about calling cards from the large companies? There's absolutely no reason to have a calling card from one of the Big 3, or regional (Bell, GTE) companies. You'll easily pay 4 to 5 times more than you would with a smaller, independent calling card that will give you excellent quality, no surcharges, far better rates, and the freedom to have an independent calling card, rather than being forced to use the one tied to your home long distance company. Take a few minutes to shop around -- you'd be amazed at how good and inexpensive some of the independent calling cards actually are. *What about cheaper, pre-paid calling cards? Ok, this is a different matter. You now do see lots of advertisements for pre-paid calling cards advertising great rates (5c, 8c, etc), but beware of pre-paid cards: they have lots of hidden fees. Besides the inconveniences of using a pre-paid calling card (if you don't have it charged enough, you'll be cut off in the middle of a conversation...if you have it charged too much, your money is just rotting away...and re-charging them all the time can be a hassle), almost without exception, they all have hidden fees and surcharges. READ THE FINE PRINT! For instance, most pre-paid cards have a "connect" fee (sometimes as high as $1.00, often in the range of 25c-50c) for each call connected. Plus, many have per-call minimums (such as deducting a minimum of 3 minutes for each call placed, no matter how short the call is). And on top of that, they will rip you off incredibly on the payphone surcharge explained below. For instance, an MCI (or AT&T) pre-paid phone card charges 26c MORE (in equivalent available minutes) than they're supposed to for this fee; a GTE card charges you 36c more than they're supposed to. Plus, they all will round up your call to the next-highest minute, instead of billing in shorter increments, as many normal calling cards do. Most people just see the large ads with the great per-minute rates, and don't realize just how fast your money actually gets eaten up with the card's connection fees, call minimums, and bloated payphone tax fees. Whether or not to use a pre-paid card is a personal decision, but you should be aware how much they ACTUALLY are, when all the fees, surcharges, call minimums, and rounding-up are figured in. They're more expensive than you think. NOTE: Another thing to consider when using a pre-paid calling card is the possibility of both fraud and rate changes -- and the virtual impossibility of finding out about it when you receive no montly statement or information. If you use a monthly-billed calling card (NOT pre-paid), then a bill is sent out to you at the end of each month... you're able to make sure that no funny stuff is occuring (both in terms of possible fraud from others, as well as the card company itself trying to pull a fast one on you). However, on a pre-paid card that you recharge everytime it runs out, it's virtually impossible to know if your PIN has been compromised (since you receive no bill listing all calls made), and just as hard to track down any tricks the company might want to pull on you (for instance, if your pre-paid calling card says they charge no per-call connection fee, and then two months later, they decide to start doing so, unless they decide to tell you out of the goodness of their heart, there's NO WAY you will know you're being charged the new fee, since you're never sent an itemized bill). There are just too many strings and headaches for me to deal with on the pre-paid cards for them to make it worth my while. I know those enticing low rates (such as 5c/minute) come with all sorts of strings and hardships attached, and to me, it's just not worth it. I much prefer an ITEMIZED calling card with no strings, gimmicks, fine print or hidden charges... one that has all the information up-front for me to examine. Just something to keep in mind if you are using these pre-paid cards... December 2002 Update: While I have generally disliked pre-paid calling cards for a variety of reasons, I finally decided to give one of them (the Sam's Club Card) a try after a reader wrote me about some of its features. After having used it, I can say that this IS a decent choice to use when travelling, but there are a few things to note. The INFO: Sam's Club (and apparently WalMart in some locations?) offers a pre-paid AT&T Calling Card with a rate of 3.47c/minute, which can also be recharged at the same rate in the store or over the phone with a credit card. Billing is in 1-minute increments (rather than 6-second increments) and there's a 1-minute minimum, but with such a low rate, this isn't that bad. This Sam's Club card has no monthly fees or hidden charges -- and more importantly, no expiration date when it must be used by. While the card says the payphone surcharge is subject to change, it's currently at 9 units (31c), and for a one-time fee of 1 unit per number entered, you can set up speed-dialing for your most frequently-called numbers (by pressing "*" + a number). The card does deliver the most important point though: a low rate, without ripoffs or hidden costs. About the only thing annoying with it is the constant advertisement with each call placed, not only thanking you for using AT&T, but remiding you to shop at Sam's Club. Still, if this doesn't bother you, this is definitely a card to consider if pre-paid cards are your thing. Note that Sam's Club is a membership store, but if you're not a member, you can still purchase an item in the store at a 10% markup (for the actual card -- subsequent rechargings should be at the normal rate, though I haven't verified this). Also, while I haven't checked this out yet myself, a reader emailed that the card can also be bought on-line for a higher rate of 4.2c/minute at: http://www.onlineplanetstore.com, and then later refreshed at the lower 3.47c/min rate if you're careful to ask for the right rate, and don't get scammed. But note that AT&T markets dozens of different cards and refreshes all with different rates, and the rate you both initially get, as well as the later recharge rate depends on which marketing channel you go through (the same card can cost 3.47c to recharge or 19c to recharge, depending on how you do it) -- so be extra careful in the re-charge process. I dislike AT&T quite a bit, but if you're CAREFUL, and don't mind using pre-paid cards, this is definitely the one to consider. End December 2002 Update *What's this about calling cards ripping people off on an FCC surcharge? Yup, it's true. Just like the FCC-surcharge story above (for home long distance), most calling card companies are taking a new FCC fee, and bloating it with profit for themselves -- and yet again, the FCC seems willing to let them get away with it. Here's the story... Calling card costs have come down so much, that for a while, people such as myself were using them instead of coins for local calls. (Hey, for a quick 1/2-minute call, 8c is better than 35c in coins!) Payphone owners noticed a drop-off in business, and lobbied the FCC to impose a new "payphone tax", which became law in October 1997. This new surcharge says that anytime a call is placed from a payphone where you don't deposit money, SOMEONE has to pay 24c to the payphone owner to compensate them for the use of their phone. (This fee was 28.4c when it first was charged, but the FCC has since lowered the fee to 24c). So, if you use a payphone to call an 800 number -- whether it be United Airlines or Aunt Harriet -- whoever's 800 number you call from a payphone will be charged 24c MORE for each call placed to them from a payphone than for a call placed to them from a home or business phone. The extra money is collected by the long distance company used to complete the call, and is supposed to be forwarded to the payphone owners. This applies to calling card calls as well. It doesn't matter if you use an "800" number, or "0+number" to make your call -- if you place a call from a payphone without putting coins in, the calling card companies are to compensate the payphone owners 24c for you using their phones without putting any coins in (and of course, the calling card companies just pass this fee onto us when the bill arrives). Ah, but here's where the calling card companies have been cheating you yet again. The FCC-imposed fee is currently 24c for all calls made from payphones. Yet almost ALL calling card companies are charging MORE for this FCC fee, and keeping the rest as profit. Some charge 30c, some 35c, 40c, 50c, and some of the larger ones charge even more (60c+). When I called up the calling card I USED to use -- note the "USED TO" -- I was told the extra money was for "processing fees". I started looking for another card that day. I don't like being screwed with, and neither should you. By the way, the fee applies to multiple calls as well (if you make multiple calls on your calling card each time you use it from a payphone, you'll still be charged the surcharge for EACH call you make). Be aware that EVERY calling card now charges more than the proper amount (24c) for this fee -- sometimes a LOT more (and keep the extra as profit). Just for fun, why not call up your current calling card company and ask them how much their payphone fee is. Then ask them to explain to you why they're taking everything above 24c as profit. If you get an operator that tries to tell you "we don't have any such fees", they're either lying, or (more typically) uninformed. Ask to speak to a supervisor, and don't hang up until you've found this information out. The payphone tax is an FCC REQUIREMENT, and ALL calling card companies now pass this tax onto you. The only question is how much profit your calling card is quietly tacking onto that 24c fee. As of October 2001, there is no calling card of ANY type that I know of (either billed-later or pre-paid) charging the correct amount (24c) for the payphone surcharge. ALL are making hidden profits on this fee. The best choice is currently the ATN UltraCard, charging only 26c for the 24c fee (taking only a 2c profit). A few others (including the Everdial Passport) charge 30c (making a 6c profit), but most charge from 40c-60c for this 24c fee.

Saving Money From Payphones

  Since May 1999 or so, I've noticed that most calling card calls
  placed even from PRIVATE payphones (those not owned by the local
  telephone company) are now triggering the payphone surcharge
  (whereas in the past, the private-owned phones would not trigger
  the surcharge). As well, those "AT&T Public Phone 2000" phones
  (the ones with the TV monitors typically found in airports and
  hotels) are also now triggering the charge. It's a shame, as using
  a private (or AT&T 2000) payphone was a great way to avoid having
  the payphone surcharge tacked onto your calls in the past. However,
  it now no longer works.

  There is one way to place a calling card call now, and not have
  the surcharge apply -- but it doesn't work everywhere. Basically,
  it's as simple as this: call the local operator ("0") and ask them
  to put you through to your calling card's 800 number. If an operator
  connects you to your card's 800 number, the payphone surcharge will
  not be triggered. However, not all phone companies will do this for
  you. For instance, here in California, it's PacBell's new policy NOT
  to place 800 calls for people (PacBell being PacBell). Still, in many
  parts of the country, the local operators will place an 800 call for
  you if you ask. (For instance, recently in St. Louis, the operators
  kindly placed the calls for me whenver I asked). Many local phone
  companies will still do this for you, so it's worth asking. After all,
  that expensive payphone surcharge adds up, especially when placing
  multiple calls away from home.


Important Information for Everyone

No matter WHICH company you decide upon for your long distance
needs, there's one thing that EVERYONE should do to protect
themselves (and it's free too!)

Did you know that anyone could call your local phone company
and tell them that you've given them permission to switch your
long distance company to theirs? That's right -- it's called
"slamming", and is done ALL THE TIME. The practice of "slamming"
is so wide-spread, that the California Public Utilities Commission
recently took away the rights for one long distance company
(WorldXchange) to complete calls within California that originate
within the state. This punishment was due to WorldXchange's constant
and continued slamming of unsuspecting people. And don't think the
"Big 3" don't play the "slamming" game as well -- they sure do.
From the LA Times (9/25/98): "AT&T Corp., the largest U.S. phone
company, agreed Thursday to pay a $300,000 fine for illegally
switching customers in Texas to its long-distance service without
their permission. The agreement covers 96 customers that the
company and the Texas Public Utilities Commission verified were
illegally switched, or "slammed," from September to February.
The commission received 400 complaints against AT&T during that
five-month period."

Local Phone Companies Can Slam You Too:
If you thought only the long distance companies slammed people (illegally changing
customers over to themselves), think again: Verizon (the LOCAL phone company here)
illegally slammed my dad over to their long distance services in October, and since
posting this story here on the web page, I've heard from other people who have had
the exact same thing happen to them. READ CAREFULLY: this could very well happen to you,
as most of these local phone companies are now trying to get customers for their
fledgling long-distance services, and seem to be willing to use any means possible.
What happened to us was no mistake:
   On my advice, at the beginning of October, my dad decided to switch his long
distance company from Cable & Wireless to Isterra (a re-seller of WorldCom lines).
My dad had a "PIC Freeze" on his line (meaning the long-distance companies assigned
to my dad's line were "frozen" -- only changable with a WRITTEN REQUEST from my dad --
as the "PIC Freeze" is used to stop illegal switching). Verizon has a special form
to fill out if you have a PIC Freeze and wish to change your long distance company.
My dad and I filled out this form together, and FAXed it to the number indicated on
the form (a Verizon office in Texas).
   On the Verizon form, it only asks for the "PIC CODE" of the new company you wish to
have (in this case "0555", since the new company we wanted uses WorldCom lines, and
the PIC code for WorldCom lines is 0555). However just to be EXTRA CLEAR, we not only
wrote "0555" twice (for both "long distance" and "short distance toll calls"), but
ALSO wrote "WorldCom/Isterra" twice so there would be no confusion.
   It didn't matter. As soon as Verizon received a document with my dad's signature
on it, we were immediately switched not to the company we requested, but over to
Verizon, for BOTH "long distance" and "short distance toll calls."
   We found out about this on a Saturday by dialing the "700" check/verify number
(1-700-555-4141) -- but since Verizon's "customer service" offices are closed on
weekends, my dad was virtually without long distance service for the entire
weekend (yes, according to the new anti-slamming laws, he could have made calls
that weekend, and Verizon would later have to fully refund all the calls made -- but
the last thing he needed was to spend another two hours fighting with Verizon
customer service agents).
   That Monday, after 90 minutes of waiting and explaining things to one Verizon agent
after another, we were finally transferred to someone who reluctantly agreed to switch
us back to the companies we requested (though it would take until the end of the day
to go into the system).
   Immediately afterwards, we wrote a letter to Verizon's Executive Customer Service
Department asking for an explanation on how something like this could happen from a
company that supposedly disavows such tactics. Enclosing a copy of the original form
we FAXed to Verizon (so they could see firsthand just how clear it was), we pointed
out that: (1) there could be NO dispute which company we wanted -- just look at the form.
(2) We were without long distance service for three days due to the slamming. (3) If we had
been switched to another Verizon competitor (say Sprint or AT&T), one might excuse it as
a simple mistake -- but the fact that Verizon, as our local phone company, had switched us
to themselves for all long distance calls when we specifically asked for another company,
meant it was nothing but slamming, pure and simple.
   The following week we received a typical form reply, with no information on how
this could have happened, and a statement that there would be no compensation for
their slamming, as "D&R Rule No. 26 limits the damages for which Verizon is liable."
In other words, they were caught in an illegal action, and as long as they changed
back those few people who noticed it and complained, they weren't liable for anything.
   The next day we called the representative who wrote the letter, asking once again
if they had determined how this could have happened. She had no explanation -- but
reiterated that there would be no credit or compensation for their action. Finally
we brought up the fact that Verizon advertises a "service guarantee", which promises a
$25 credit when a service order is not completed on-time or correctly. Upon mentioning
this, she immediately tried to say that their service guarantee wouldn't apply to this.
When we asked her "Why? This was a service order that was (a) completed incorrectly,
(b) completed late, and (c) was illegal", she said she'd have to speak to a higher-up
supervisor. Only after letting them know we were in the process of filing a formal
complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission about this, did she finally
come back to say that they would approve their promised  "service guarantee" credit of
$25 for what had happened.
   During this whole affair, three different representatives (including this latest one)
tried to explain the slamming by using the same excuse (I wonder if it's company policy, as
they all used the same line): "Oh, it must have just been a typing mistake... the PIC codes
must have been similar, and someone just made a mistake." When this latest representative
tried to use that line on us though, we forced the issue: "So tell us, what is Verizon's
PIC Code?" She then had no choice but to tell us (as we had informed her at the start of
the call that it was being recorded), that Verizon's PIC Code is: "5483" -- not anywhere NEAR
WorldCom's "0555" -- and then incredulously still insisted that "0555" and "5483" were similar
enough to warrant an honest typing mistake.
   As an interesting postscript, when all this was finished, we called Verizon's normal
Customer Serivce line once more to re-verify Verizon's PIC Code number (it IS 5483), and
wound up speaking to probably the only Verizon agent who knew exactly what was going on.
Telling us he used to work over at Verizon's long distance division, he then began looking up
the records for my dad's phone number. Saying he was now speaking to us only as a person,
and not as a representive of Verizon, he said "yup, I can't explain why, but we slammed
you... I thought it might have been 'virtual slamming' where the switch isn't actually changed,
but nope... you were slammed. Obviously 0555 and 5483 aren't similar at all, but our office in
Texas slammed you over to us. Sorry."

Jan. 2002: It seems Verizon slamming people in their push for long-distance customers
isn't an isolated case. I received this email from a reader in Kentucky:
   "Hi Larry. I'm in the club. Verizon slammed me. I removed my PIC freeze last Monday morning
    at their phone mart so that I could have a copy of their form which stated my order. Then
    I signed up within the hour for EverDial on-line. On Tuesday I called the 700 verify number
    and was welcomed (correctly) to the Isterra/WorldCom network (for EverDial). But then today
    (Monday, 12/17) I received my slam message from Verizon welcoming me to their service. I
    had to go back to the phone mart and have EverDial restored (hopefully).

   Verizon is a local phone company in many different parts of the United States, and
like most of the local Baby Bells, they're trying their hardest to get customers for
their long-distance services. Let this story be a warning for all of you out there
to put a PIC Freeze on your line, and to watch out for your local phone company
trying to slam you -- they will do it just as much as the long distance companies.
I keep wondering about how many other unknowing customers Verizon has done this
to.. long distance is a hobby of mine, but most people don't know as much about it
as I do. How much money is Verizon making getting away with this -- as other than
having to switch customers who notice it back, they have to pay no penalty if caught?

JUNE, 2000: And still the slamming continues...
From the LA Times (6/7/00): "WorldCom agreed Tuesday to pay the federal
government a record $3.5 million to settle complaints that the company
switched customers' long-distance carriers without their permission...
Last year, the FCC received 2,900 slamming complaints from consumers
about WorldCom, the most of any long distance carrier... Consumer
advocates complained that the large payout is a pittance for the
nation's second-largest long-distance company...equal to 1/4th of
one day's profit for the company..."

*How can I protect myself from being "slammed?!"
   Easy. Follow these steps:
   (a) Dial 1-700-555-4141 to verify that you're still connected
       to the long distane company of your choice. (This is a free
       call, and will answer with a recording. If you're connected
       to AT&T, it'll say "Welcome to AT&T". If you're connected to
       WorldCom, it'll say "Welcome to WorldCom", etc.)
       NOTE: this recording will tell you what company is handling
       your long distance calls OUTSIDE of your general area (calls
       outside your LATA) -- in other words, calls made more than
       approx. 60 miles from your home.
       NOTE: To find out what company is handling your
       "Local Long Distance" (long distance calls generally less
       than 60 miles from where you live), you must dial another
       number. This other number can vary with the different local
       phone companies, but in many places, it's:
                     1-YOUR-OWN-AREA-CODE-700-4141.
       The recording on this number will tell you what company you
       have assigned for your "local long distance" calls.
       If this 2nd number doesn't work in your area, call your
       local phone company and ask what the number is to call to
       verify which company is handling your LOCAL Long Distance
       calls ("calls WITHIN your own LATA").

   (b) If you're not with a company you want to keep, this is the
       point where you should change long distance companies. And you
       can use the above phone numbers to verify when you've been
       successfully changed over to the new companies of your choice.
       Once you've VERIFIED that you're connected to the companies
       you'd like to stay with, go on to step (c).
 
   (c) Call your local phone company (your LOCAL company, not your
       long distance company), and tell them to send you out a
       "PIC-Freeze Request" form. What this form does, is prevent
       ANYONE BUT YOU from switching your long distance companies.
       Fill out the form and send it back in to your local phone
       company. Once it's been processed, NO ONE can call and claim
       you've given them permission to switch you -- the only way
       your local phone company will now change your long distance
       company is if you make the request YOURSELF, in writing.
       This service is free, and EVERYONE should take advantage of it.

   (d) Just to be on the safe side, about a month after you've
       submitted your PIC-Freeze to the local phone companies, call
       those "700" numbers above just to make sure that no one
       switched you during the time between when you switched phone
       companies, and when the local phone company processed your
       PIC-Freeze request. You'd be surprised how often companies
       like Sprint and AT&T will "slam" people as soon as they leave
       them. Their excuse? "Oh, we thought someone ELSE had slammed
       you, so we just decided to slam you back to us." Once you've
       verified that the you're connected to the companies of your
       choice, and that the PIC-Freeze is in effect on your phone
       line, you can relax. After that, the only person who can
       switch your long distance company is yourself.


Which Companies Do I Recommend?

MAIN LONG DISTANCE / CALLING CARDS / CHEAPER INTERNATIONAL CALLING

The hardest thing about finding a long distance company that's
right for you isn't actually FINDING it -- it's sifting through the
jungle of hype, lies, and hidden schemes that bombard us everyday.

Below are not only companies that I've used myself, but a few other
possibilities that you may want to look into, as different people have
different needs from a long distance company. The companies I have
used myself all gained my approval, and those I haven't used before
seem (as far as I can tell without joining every one I come across)
to meet my general basic requirements for being listed here (having
no monthly fees, minimums, etc.) Please note that other than being
a customer of some of these companies, I have NO INTEREST OR CONNECTION
with them in any way.

I'm always looking for better deals, and definitely want to hear from you
if you think you've found something better! There's very little loyalty in
this business, and I'll be first in line to switch (as I have just recently
done yet again) if it really is a better deal. But BEWARE of FINE PRINT,
RESTRICTIONS, and HIDDEN PROFITS. 

ALSO... please note that my suggestions here aren't the final word.
The best person to know which long distance comapny to go with is
yourself. I list these here only to show you examples that there ARE
companies out there that offer much better deals and don't rip their
customers off the way most of the large long distance companies do. Feel
free to look into some of these companies, or just use them as a guide in
your own research. Just remember to BE CAREFUL! HIDDEN TRICKS (such as
fees, bloated taxes and surchargesare) are everywhere!

THREE ADDITIONAL NOTES FOR SHOPPING AROUND LONG-DISTANCE COMPANIES:
  *What are their IN-STATE rates?
   If you're like most people, you make a lot more in-state calls than state-to-state ones
without even realizing it, yet the ads on TV only quote the rates for calling another state.
Take a look at your phone bill for the last few months and see how many calls you've made
WITHIN YOUR OWN STATE, then ask the various long distance companies how much their IN-STATE
rates are.
  *What do they charge for the USF "tax"? Is it calculated on ALL calls or only certain ones?
   Some companies charge 7%-9%. Others (like AT&T) charge 11.5%.
   Some companies (such as EverDial) figure the USF percentage only on state-to-state and
international calls. Others (like AT&T) figure the USF on ALL of your calls (forcing you
to pay more). The USF "tax" is the latest place the long distance companies are using to
hide hidden profits, and is JUST AS IMPORTANT -- IF NOT MORE SO -- TO THE BOTTOM LINE as
the per-minute rates.
  *How much are the misc. calls and fees?
   How much for out-of-state directory assistance?
   Are there any monthly fees (ANY such monthly fee is an automatic NO THANK YOU!)
   Are there any monthly minimums that must be met (another automatic NO THANK YOU!)


October 2006 Update: CHEAPEST OVERSEAS CALLS CURRENTLY FOR CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS ONLY For over a year now I've happily used the "101-9898" dial around service for my international calls. The call quality is excellent, the rates are unbeatable, and there are no strings attached (you are billed for the calls on your local phone company bill). The only drawback is that the company is only available for people living in California at the present time. The company is DAR Communications, and the dial-around code is: 101-9898 (NOTE: DAR Communications has more than one dial-around code, but their 101-9898 service is the one with the best rates). There is a 10c-per-call connection fee, and the rates are ridiculously low. The rates change every once in a while, but they never change significantly and have always been lower than other companies. Even better, when you dial your overseas call, an automated computer voice always tells you what the current per-minute rate is before the call is completed -- so if you don't like it, you can just hang up (if the current rate to the country you're dialing is 3c per minute, a computer voice will say "3c per minute" before the call is completed). All you do (assuming you live in California) is pick up your phone and dial 101-9898 before the 011-country-code, etc. They also offer domestic long distance at competitive rates, but where they really shine is their international rates. Personally I use another company for my domestic long distance, but all of my overseas calls go through 101-9898 now. For over a year I've had no problems of any kind with them and have been 100% satisfied. Too bad it's only (currently) for California residents. Their webpage with their current rates: www.1019898.com. FOR YOUR MAIN LONG DISTANCE COMPANY: October 2006 Update: Changes * Some of the companies that I had recommended in the past are no longer good choices -- mostly because of new fees. I can understand imposing a "paper bill" fee for low usage (as it costs money for the paper, ink, envelope -- plus 39c to mail the bill, and if a customer is only making a dollar or two a month in calls, the company will lose money if they send a paper bill in the mail instead of having the customer look at his bill online), but other fees are a total sham and unforgivable: * Americom: I used them until this month, but I am now switching away from them, because their supplier (PowerNetGlobal -- PNG) is now charging a 99c/month fee just to USE their service regardless of usage (on top of other fees). Sadly, this is now in the AVOID column. I'm switching away from them and if you have them (or PowerNetGlobal/PNG), so should you. * Everdial, which I recommended and used for a long time, now has a $5/month "maintenance fee" if you spend less than $10 a month, making it a really bad choice now (if you go on vacation or for some reason don't use $10 worth of long distance in any given month, you're charged a $5 fee. That means if you make $9 worth of calls in a month you'll be charged $14). Avoid. * LD Direct: it's been a while since I used them, and I took them off the recommend list a while ago, but still had their information up. By this point there are so many better companies that don't have a $25 minimum monthly useage fee like they now charge, I just finally took them off the webpage. Avoid. * 9-Line is a re-seller of various services. I'll keep his information up here because as things change he offers different services. It's been a while since I've gone through him, but I found him honest, and someone who knew his stuff.. so I'll keep his information here, as the various plans and companies he represents change as he finds better deals. October 2006 Update: New Companies * 3U Telecom Probably the best (tentative) recommend I can give now is a company I am just switching to myself. I will report more in the coming months how they work out, but so far everything looks good. The company is called 3U Telecom, and their webpage is here. They seem to be the perfect company for those who don't make a ton of long distance calls -- and even for those who often make none at all from home and just want to have a long distance carrier assigned for emergencies (a lot of people use their celphones for long distance now). While their rates aren't the absolute best, they are still VERY GOOD -- and they are one of the few companies that does NOT bill customers for taxes and fees even if there is no usage (most companies -- even if they have NO "low usage" fee -- now bill customers each month for taxes, USF, network access, and other fees, even if not one call is made!) The 3U rep even said "oh yes, we have many customers who don't use us at all" and their webpage says that if you ever want to cancel their service, you can basically just stop using them, as they don't bill you for anything if you don't use their service. However, they also have good rates for people who DO want to use long distance. It's 4.8c/min on state-to-state calls, and they have some really good rates for in-state calls that make up the bulk of calling for most people (for instance, California is 3.4c/min). They also bill in 1-second increments (a better deal than anyone), and they seem to be honest about everything. They DO NOT "pad" the USF fee, taking extra money for themselves, but state quite clearly that all they do is "pass along" the official USF rate as posted on the FCC's website (most other companies now charge 12%-14% for a fee that's currently around 10%). Not only that, but if you have a cel phone, they offer a free service where you can call their 800 number and make international calls from your cel phone for their super-cheap international rates, with no additional fees at all (other than using your celphone airtime to call their 800 number). Everything seems to be right about this company, but note I am just in the process of switching to them, so I will report more as time goes on. If you're someone who doesn't use land-based long distance a lot anymore, this is probably the last good choice left for you if you don't want to get bills when you don't make any calls at all (for taxes, network access, etc.) -- and their rates, services, and policies are good enough to please those who DO make a lot of calls. 3U uses normal long distance companies for your domestic long distance (not VOIP) so the quality is good. They don't charge more if you live in non-Bell areas like Pioneer Telephone, and they really seem to offer a fair and honest service. The only restrictions: your bill comes via email (though for 99c you can opt to have a paper bill printed and sent to you instead), and payment is done automatically (to your credit card, debit card, or checking account after your bill is sent to you). Everything seems right about them, and I will report more on them in the coming months. * "Pioneer Telephone" (see below) may be a company to consisder (based upon other people's reports), but NOTE if you live in an area that is served by a company that did NOT used to be part of the old Bell system (such as all Verizon customers except for those in the old New York Telephone area), you will pay a much higher in-state rate. For instance, I'm in California, and Pioneer's 2.9c in-state rate for California becomes 9.9c/min. Note that it's not just Pioneer.. many smaller companies charge more for customers not living in old Bell areas. Many don't, but many do. If you live in Verizon territory or an area that wasn't once part of the old Bell system, make sure you clarify if your rates are different. Because of the extremely high in-state rates for Verizon customers in California, I will not use Pioneer, but if you live in an old/current Bell area, you might want to look into them. Their rates for Bell customers are good, but note they do have a few fees (like 99c/month for printing a paper bill). Check out all the fees and rates and see if they're for you. * ECG: Advertises no minimums -- but you will still be billed 59c every month to help cover the tax costs even in months with no activity. Avoid this kind of sham. * Americom: A company I used myself until recently. Now their supplier (PowerNetGlobal -- PNG) charges you 99c/month (regardless of usage!) just to be connected to their company. Avoid. END OCTOBER 2006 UPDATE 9-LINE 9-Line is a reselling company offering several different telephone plans run by a fellow named Reed Venturella. I've gone through 9-Line myself in the past, and was extremely impressed with Reed. He not only offers some great plans, but unlike so many other agents out there, he knows his business. You can't imagine how frustrating it is to call some of these people who advertise on the net and ask them valid, but technical or trivial questions about the services they offer, and if it's not pre-printed on a sales brochure, they can't answer the question. Reed's not like this. He knows his stuff, and has always been able to answer every question I had, no matter how trivial. The companies and plans he sells are decent, and he points out the bad and good points about each of them fairly. His web page is at: www.8.9line.net, or there's a direct page to his 4.9c/min plan at: www.9line.net. You can also reach him toll-free at (877) 864-4001, or by Email at: reed@9line.net. One plan 9-Line offers is a 8.9c plan from Lightyear/UniDial. I myself used this plan for a few years (leaving them for another company which had cheaper in-California rates), and had no complaints. They're not the cheapest anymore, but still aren't anywhere as bad as the "Big 3". While I wouldn't recommend them for heavy-use customers, I WOULD still recommend it to those people who don't make many long distance calls, as they're a straight-shooting company with no minimums, usage fees, gimmicks, or hidden fees (perfect for those people that don't have the time or inclination to constantly keep up with this industry and its ever-changing rates and tricks). They bill in 6-second increments, use WorldCom/MCI lines, have 24hr customer support, decent directory assistance rates, and easy-to-understand bills. Not for heavy use customers, but very much for occasional callers. Another 9-Line offered plan is a 4.9c/min plan, with no monthly fees or minimums. This plan has 6-second billing, and decent in-state rates (California is 4.5c). Note though that the USF tax is a high 11.9% (billed on all types of calls). A credit card billing option available. I haven't used this plan myself, but Reed is very up-front about the pros and cons of each of his plans, and depending on your calling patterns, you might want to compare this with EverDial. Taken Off List: GTC Telecom Up until now, I listed a company which I had never tried, "GTC Telecom". They offered 5c/min state-to-state rates with no fees if you set up automatic credit card billing (if not, it was $1.95 a month). I've since taken them off my list, for besides the $1.95 fee for paying by check, a GTC customer emailed me that back when there was a PICC fee, they were charging customers $1.50 for what was legally supposed to be only $1.04 (there is no longer a PICC fee, but this doesn't bode well for the type of company it is). They also billed in 1-minute increments (instead of 6-second increments), and with the other choices now available, there didn't seem to be a need to have them up here anymore.
FOR A CALLING CARD: June 2005 Update: Removing ATN/TTI National From Recommend List For a long time I had recommended the ATN / TTI National Calling Card, as they had good rates, and low fees. However as of July 2005, they will now be charging an "upkeep" fee of $1.99 every month, regardless of if you use the card or not. To me this is unacceptable, and I will no longer recommend this card. With the popularity of cel phones now, calling cards aren't as prolific as they once were, so if anyone knows of a good calling card without fees or bloated payphone surcharges (proper amount should be 24c, though the 30c-35c range is acceptable) please email me and let me know. December 2002 Update: Prepaid Calling Card While I have generally disliked pre-paid calling cards for a variety of reasons, I finally decided to give one of them (the Sam's Club Card) a try after a reader wrote me about some of its features. After having used it, I can say that this IS a decent choice to use when travelling, but there are a few things to note. The INFO: Sam's Club (and apparently WalMart in some locations?) offers a pre-paid AT&T Calling Card with a rate of 3.47c/minute, which can also be recharged at the same rate in the store or over the phone with a credit card. Billing is in 1-minute increments (rather than 6-second increments) and there's a 1-minute minimum, but with such a low rate, this isn't that bad. This Sam's Club card has no monthly fees or hidden charges -- and more importantly, no expiration date when it must be used by. While the card says the payphone surcharge is subject to change, it's currently at 9 units (31c), and for a one-time fee of 1 unit per number entered, you can set up speed-dialing for your most frequently-called numbers (by pressing "*" + a number). The card does deliver the most important point though: a low rate, without ripoffs or hidden costs. About the only thing annoying with it is the constant advertisement with each call placed, not only thanking you for using AT&T, but remiding you to shop at Sam's Club. Still, if this doesn't bother you, this is definitely a card to consider if pre-paid cards are your thing. Note that Sam's Club is a membership store, but if you're not a member, you can still purchase an item in the store at a 10% markup (for the actual card -- subsequent rechargings should be at the normal rate, though I haven't verified this). Also, while I haven't checked this out yet myself, a reader emailed that the card can also be bought on-line for a higher rate of 4.2c/minute at: http://www.onlineplanetstore.com, and then later refreshed at the lower 3.47c/min rate if you're careful to ask for the right rate, and don't get scammed. But note that AT&T markets dozens of different cards and refreshes all with different rates, and the rate you both initially get, as well as the later recharge rate depends on which marketing channel you go through (the same card can cost 3.47c to recharge or 19c to recharge, depending on how you do it) -- so be extra careful in the re-charge process. I dislike AT&T quite a bit, but if you're CAREFUL, and don't mind using pre-paid cards, this is definitely the one to consider. Summer 2005 update: These AT&T/Sam's Club cards have since raised the payphone service fee even more. It's now not as good of a deal as it once was (and of course, it doesn't matter that I bought the card with the older/lower fee in effect, they can raise it at any time and you have no recourse). I still have some time left on my card, but if anyone has a better deal for prepaid calling cards, please email me. Something with NO connection fees, and without bloating a payphone surcharge too much (since invariably, most calling card calls are made from payphones).
CHEAPER INTERNATIONAL DIALING Summer 2005 If you live in California, scroll up a little and read the section at the top of "Which Companies Do I Recommend?" -- there's a new company (101-9898) that offers great service and unbelievable rates. I'm still giving it a tryout before I recommend it, but it's worth checking out: www.1019898.com. For California Residents Only at this point. END SUMMER 2005 UPDATE While your 1+ Long Distance company may (or may not) offer decent Interntaional rates, chances are, by selecting a "dial-around" company, and dialing a few extra digits, you can save a lot of money. I have a lot of relatives and friends who live overseas, and by using a "dial-around" service, I'm able to call them for only a few pennies (I call my sister in Hong Kong for 7c/min, no fees attached!) These two plans mentioned below have NO minimums or monthly service charges attached to them -- you're charged only for the calls you make. NEVER ACCEPT ANY INTERNATIONAL CALLING PLAN WITH A MONTHLY FEE! YOU'LL JUST BE THROWING MONEY AWAY. Take a look at the rates you can get below with companies which charge NO monthly fees (I use both companies myself). FLASH! January 2004 I have removed WorldXChange's "Penny Plan" from recommendation after they began charging customers a $2.50 "low usage" fee (see story below). Right now there is only one company I recommend (and recommend it strongly -- I use it myself), and that is "PT-1". If for some reason you can't get "PT-1" in your area, or would like an emergency backup, check out the international rates on the company you have for your main long distance. For instance, on the Everdial plan, their long distance rates are only a few pennies more, and are fine to use for a backup. So basically right now, PT-1 is the way to go for the cheapest, strings-free overseas calling. For a long time on my page here, I recommended as a backup only WorldXchange's "Penny Plan" for a cheap overseas dial-around (10-10-XXX) option for those rare times that the main company I reommend (PT-1) goes down. NO LONGER. Without ANY WARNING to its customers, WorldXChange just started a "low usage" fee, which means if you use them at all in any given month, and don't make at least $5 in calls with them that month, they will now slap you with a $2.50 "low usage" surcharge (about $2.77 with taxes). As I always stated on my page, WorldXChange has always been a sleazy company (run by a convicted ex-drug trafficer) that did so many illegal "slammings" against people that the State of California went so far as to take away its right to complete in-state calls placed in California, and I reommended them only as an emergency backup only for international calls. Now obviously, I'm taking them off my webpage, and out of my auto-dial. But it gets better: I called them up (waiting 48 minutes for a rep to come on the line) and told them that since I had received no notification of the new surcharge, I wanted the surcharge off the bill. They flatly refused to do so.. so I did what is in everyone's right to do -- and what I strongly recommend all of you who have been billed for this surcharge do: dispute it with your local phone company. The way this plan works, your local phone company bills you on behalf of them.. and all you need to do is call up your local phone company and tell them you wish to dispute this charge. Your local service cannot and will not be affected by this (in other words, they can't disconnect your service for refusing to pay or placing in dispute a charge from another company that they bill for). This is what I did myself. I called up Verizon (my local phone company), and told them that while I will pay for the cost of the one call to Hong Kong I actually made with WorldXChange, I will not pay the $2.50 surcharge ($2.77 with taxes figured in). Verizon happily took it off my bill... so now if WorldXChange wants their ill-gotten money, they will have to hire a collection agency completely independent of the local phone company (something they will not want to do, as it will cost them a heck of a lot more than $2.76). So again, I'm removing WorldXChange completely from my webpage, and I recommend that anyone charged this surcharge simply refuse to pay it (via the local phone company). One important thing to note: if you call WorldXChange, they will try to convince you to use them as your primary long distance company to avoid this "charge." Do not do it!! They are among the sleaziest companies in the industry, and there are SO MANY other MUCH BETTER choices. Take a look at my "Which Companies Do I Recommend?" area. As it turns out, for international calls, the main dial-around (10-10-XXX) company I have always recommended (PT-1) is still the cheapest, and rarely gives any problems -- and if a problem does occur where I need to use a backup company for overseas calling, the "main long distance" company I recommend (Everdial) has rates just about in line with what they were on WorldXChange. Avoid WorldXChange at all costs. End Update The company you should look at is: PT-1 Communications (10-16-868) -- my recommendation Rate Chart (As of Oct. 2001) The following rates have NO fees of any kind attached to them: Hong Kong 7c Japan 14c Taiwan 13c UK 8c (7.9c) Israel 15c Australia 12c Canada 8c (7.9c) France 10c Norway 10c South Africa 33c Cheapest no-fee international rates you can find anywhere. Billing is in 1-minute increments. Calls appear on your LOCAL phone company's bill. No hidden call minimums or "connection fees" or other gimmicks of any kind. Quality is excellent, it's extremely easy to use (just dial 101-6868 beforehand -- so it'd be 101-6868 + 011 + Country Code + City Code + Number). Rates are lowest I've seen. Billed on the local phone company bill for convenience. I've never needed to call Customer Service with a problem, but on the times I've called with questions, it's been very good. Also, PT-1's USF "tax" rate is lower than many of its competitors (good for us). The only drawback is that PT-1 is not available everywhere.. check their webpage (link below) to see which areas they're available in. I've used them for a few years now, and highly recommend them. Click here to go to 101-6868's general info page, or here to see their current rates. Some more information about 101-6868: *Access them by dialing 101-6868 before the rest of your number *Charges will appear on your local phone company bill *There are NO monthly fees, NO connection fees, and NO call minimums *USF is 8.5% (many companies charge 9.9%) *Calls are billed in 1-minute increments *Calls to U.S. Directory Assistance are 85c *They have toll-free Customer Service, available 24hrs/7days. The phone number is: (888) 660-5377 *State-to-state and in-state calls are both 7.9c/min (nothing special) __________________________________ PT-1 Communications PROs: *Just about the cheapest international rates anywhere, period *No need to change your current long distance company *No fees, minimums, restrictions, or strings *Good quality connections *24hr/7day Toll-Free Customer Service *Easier Dialing (no "800" numbers to deal wtih -- just "1016868") *Convenient billing on your local phone company bill PT-1 Communications CONs: *Service currently offered only in certain areas of the country
OVERSEAS TIP: No matter which company you use for your overseas calls, to make your calls go through faster, always press the "#" key (the "pound" key) after the last digit. On international calls, this signals the phone company's computer that you've dialed all the numbers you're going to dial, and to start placing the call. (Since calls to different countries have different number of digits, if you don't press the "#" key, the phone company's computers will typically wait for a few seconds of silence before deciding that you're done dialing. By pressing the "#" key, you're telling the computer that you've finished dialing, and to start placing the call right away).

Links

The FCC is the place to visit if you want information on long
distance fees, taxes, and rules. Their main web page is here,
however it's not laid out very well, and you can spend hours
trying to find the areas you want information on.
Also, note that it doesn't seem to be updated that often.
For those of you looking for information on the payphone
surcharge, go here. However note that this page has NOT been
updated yet in regards to the lowering of the amount from
28.4c to the current 24c.
If you live in the U.S., it might be better to contact the
FCC on their toll-free consumer help line, at: 1-888-225-5322.
Note that even on this line, some of the pre-recorded information
selections are out-of-date, but if you call during business hours
and press "0" a few times, you'll be connected to a live person
who will answer any questions you have on telecom fees and the like.

A good private webpage on long distance to take a look at is
the Long Distance Digest page. On it are tips, news,
hall-of-shame companies to avoid, and an assortment of other
interesting readings.

Another good private page (focusing on 10-10-XXX Dial-around
companies) is the 10-10-Phone Rates page, at:
http://10-10PhonesRates.com, where you can see a listing of
offerings from some of the various dial-around 10-10-XXX companies.


The End?

Well, that's my Long Distance Information document for now.
I hope you've found it useful, and have been able to get some good
information out of it.

I actually don't know why I decided to type this all in, except that I
know a lot about this business, and know first-hand how much money
people are throwing away on long distance.

To close with, I'll leave you with this little trivia (further proof
that I know far more than any sane man should about this stuff):
For years, 800 numbers were assigned by the general areas in which
they were located. This is no longer the case (anyone living anywhere
can choose any 800 number they want, as long as it's not taken or
reserved), but some of the older, original numbers still can identify
what cities they're located in by their prefix. For instance, a "525"
exchange (800-525-XXXX) used to mean that the number was located in
the middle of the US (such as Colorado). "221", "222", and "223"
numbers were assigned to the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.
"368" and "424" numbers were for Washington DC 800 lines, "421" meant
California, and "367" meant an 800 number in Hawaii. However, now that
the restrictions on 800 numbers have been freed up, a "367" number can
just as easily be located in Kansas as in Hawaii.
(*Sigh*). I miss the good old days. :)

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