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State answers the call for help
July 15, 2004
By TUX TURKEL, Portland Press Herald Writer
SOUTH PORTLAND — With a second home and four lines wired for phone service, fax, security alarm and computers, Maureen Cousins expected higher-than-average monthly phone bills. But the $132.59 Verizon bill Cousins received recently seemed unusually high, which is why she brought it to the Maine Mall on Wednesday to show to Wayne Jortner, a lawyer at the Maine Public Advocate's Office. Jortner and six other staff members had set up a table at the mall to help people like Cousins, who feel they pay too much for phone and Internet service. Jortner showed her how she could save almost $50 a month on long-distance calls and $13 on local calls, if she switched to a competing, Maine-based provider, USA Telephone.
"I found out that I'm being overcharged," Cousins said following her discussion.
That's not an unusual conclusion, according to Stephen Ward, the state's public advocate. His office set up similar free help desks last summer at the Maine Mall and earlier this year at the Auburn Mall. More than 100 people came to each session. In almost every instance, Ward said, the staff was able to show participants how to save on their bills - an average of $5 a month.
That people pay more than necessary for telecom services is understandable, according to the Public Advocate staff. Some people are nervous about reliability or service if they switch from widely known legacy carriers such as Verizon and AT&T. In other instances, it's just confusing and time consuming to gather all the information needed to compare the nuances of all the possible plans. Faced with that task, many residents and small-business owners don't do anything.
That's why the Public Advocate's Office decided to hold the mall sessions, which are modeled after meetings organized by consumer groups in Pennsylvania. The Maine office runs newspaper ads and tries to get television promotions to get the word out.
Long-distance toll rates have been declining for years, but individual bills may not follow suit. In addition to surcharges that can boost advertised rates by 50 percent, bills may be inflated by enhanced services that have additional charges, such as caller ID. Carriers also are bundling together long-distance and local-calling plans, which can make comparisons confusing.
One trend is for people to drop long-distance service at home and use their cell phones or prepaid calling cards. But these strategies can backfire, Jortner said.
Calling cards round charges to the next minute, while many low-cost long- distance providers round charges to the next six seconds. That saves 10 percent on an average bill. And keeping track of minutes can be a nuisance, he said.
Using cell phones at home to make long-distance calls may seem like a good idea, he said, but it can eat up so many minutes that you need a more expensive wireless plan.
Sometimes, the choices aren't so clear-cut.
Anna Hughes recently moved from South Portland to a new home in Lyman. That prompted her and her husband to get new phone service, with help from her brother-in-law. But when her $65.65 bill came from Verizon, Hughes noticed charges for options she didn't want or understand, such as call waiting. She brought her phone bill to the mall Wednesday to see if the public advocate could offer her some advice.
Bill Black, a lawyer with the office, walked her through the options to see which ones she actually wanted. Then he compared the estimated costs of both long-distance and local service from Verizon, compared to USA Telephone. Verizon's local service rate was roughly $7 less than USA Telephone's, Black determined, but Hughes could get the enhanced features she did want and cheaper toll rates with USA Telephone.
So Hughes will have to calculate how many minutes of toll calls she's likely to make, then see if the per minute savings with USA Telephone would make the switch worthwhile.
Maureen Cousins didn't have as difficult a choice. Her bill suggested that while it was worthwhile to keep Verizon's basic service for her computer and fax line, she could cut her overall bill dramatically by switching to USA Telephone. Cousins thanked Jortner before she got up to leave.
"If you ever get around to doing Medicare cards, let me know," she said.
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