Aug. 21, 2007 at 8:00 AM ET
Nicki Harris couldn't understand how she'd exceeded the monthly minutes on her Sprint calling plan. She is careful with her prime-time calling and pays for a plan that gives her free Sprint-to-Sprint calls, so calls to her husband and mother don't eat into her monthly allotment. Yet her bill showed she had shot clear through her 800-minute-per-month ceiling.
A close look at her monthly bill revealed a surprising culprit: Numerous calls to retrieve voice mail had chewed up many minutes.
"I noticed overage charges for calls to my voicemail," said Harris, 28. "I thought this was a mistake, so I e-mailed customer service and they responded that they do not consider calls to voicemail to be a call to a Sprint phone number. ... It's hard to believe."
But it's not a mistake. Free Sprint-to-Sprint calls don't include calls to voicemail, the company told me. And it turns out Sprint isn't alone. AT&T/Cingular and Verizon also charge regular per-minute assessments on voicemail calls.
Add voicemail to the long list of sneaky, hard-to-figure charges to look for in your telecom bills.
Of the four largest carriers, only T-Mobile considers voicemail calls as in-network calls.
Sprint spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh defended the policy by saying the free mobile-to-mobile minutes is a promotion designed to "encourage people to call other subscribers." Also, she said, callers could "game the system" by using the voicemail to place outside calls, thereby getting outside network calls for free.
Verizon and AT&T/Cingular didn't get back to me in time with explanations.
But one has to wonder how many consumers understand the distinction. It might also make you wonder about the delays you must endure while retrieving voicemail and setting other options. On my Verizon phone, for example, I'm told I have an unheard new message three times before the message is actually played. ("You have one unheard message. The following message has not been heard. First unheard message.")
Harris only lost about $5 on her most recent bill due to the voicemail calls, but the San Antonio, Texas, resident and devoted hidden-fee sleuth tried to argue the principle with Sprint.
"This is insane. How is checking my voice mail not a Sprint-to-Sprint call?" she said. "I couldn't find any written policies anywhere on this."
She did complain to Sprint, and asked for a refund. In an email reply, the company dug in.
"Calls made to your Voicemail are not considered as Sprint to Sprint, as the Voicemail number is a non-Sprint number. As the charges are valid, no credit is due," wrote Joe R. from Sprint.
Fees for not calling
Of course, this is hardly the first absurd policy you'll find on telephone bills. Earlier this year, Verizon's long distance division dreamed up a new fee for consumers who don't use their service. Consumers on Verizon's basic calling plan are now charged $2 a month (plus tax!) in each month they don't make long-distance calls from their land line. It's called a "short fall" charge and amounts to a minimum fee.
A month without long distance calls isn't as rare as you might think. Given the proliferation of free long-distance calling on cell phones, plenty of consumers don't dial long distance from home any more. At Verizon, they all have to pay $2 now.
It's kind of like getting charged by Exxon for gas on a month when you don't drive your car and take the bus instead.
Consumers who find this $2 charge on the bill do have an option -- they can disable long distance service entirely from their phones. That will cost you a one-time $5.50 fee, however.
Verizon's Jim Smith defended the short-fall fee, saying that consumers should be expected to pay something for maintaining the "potential" to make a call. Consumers who pay a monthly fee for a discounted long-distance plan don't have to pay the short fall fee. But a lot of consumers don't have a discount plan -- about 2 million of Verizon's 15 million long-distance customers, Smith said.
"We believe everyone should be on a plan," he said.
Or perhaps Verizon believed a clever turn of phrase would ensure those 2 million customers generate a guaranteed minimum of $48 million a year. Prior to April, when the fee was implemented, consumers without calling plans who made no calls paid nothing to Verizon.
Verizon isn't alone in its minimum monthly charge. At AT&T, the monthly minimum is $4.95.
That should give you even more incentive to shut off your home long-distance service. When you do, you'll also save a couple of extra dollars in universal service taxes.
Of course, if you do that, you'll have to keep a close eye on your mobile phone bill, and be particularly judicious with voicemail calls.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
•If you retrieve voicemail during the day, access it "remotely" from your office phone as often as possible. That will save you cell phone minutes.
•Get to know shortcuts that allow you to bypass voicemail menu trees as quickly as possible. Saving one minute per call could really add up by the end of the month.
•Shut off long distance access from your home phone to avoid monthly minimum charges and universal service fund fees.