Sunday, July 14, 2002

Calling cards full of tricks

Shop around, decide how you'll make calls before you decide

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Before telephone connections became mobile with cellular phones, there were calling cards. Even in this era of ubiquitous wireless units, calling cards are multiplying. They're even collectible, like sports cards.

        Calling cards are not all alike. The traditional versions are often linked to a person's local or long-distance carrier, offer a specific per-minute charge, and are billed to the owner's home phone number. Within the past few years, however, prepaid phone cards have become popular.

        The first step is to decide what kind of card best fits your needs.

        Shopping for a permanent (as opposed to a prepaid) phone card should probably begin with your telephone service provider, and then expand to independent card providers. Ask the company its best per-minute rate, and what it takes to get that rate.

        Business Week magazine's “BuyerZone” service explains that calling cards cost a telephone company more to administer, and thus cost the user more than home telephone service. The price of making a call can involve an access surcharge of 35 to 65 cents, plus a per-minute cost of 20 to 35 cents. Cards without an access charge, according to the magazine, typically bill calls at 30 to 40 cents per minute.

        Two other factors can influence a per-minute rate. Unless you have a “one rate” calling-card plan, the cost of a call will vary depending on the time and day you make it. The company's “rounding” policy will determine how many seconds of time you'll lose when the carrier rounds up the call's duration. Most companies round calls to the nearest full minute; however, cards that round to smaller increments can save you big.

        Travelers who make most of their phone calls within one area code should consider a calling card offered by that local carrier. International travelers can save substantially by buying a plan with worldwide rates. Consumer Reports cites AT&T's One Rate International Savings plan, which charges 15 cents per minute or less for calls from Western Europe. The access surcharge is 89 cents, and the monthly card fee is $5.95.

        Cards are more than just a piece of plastic imprinted with access numbers. Some come equipped with features such as speed dialing of commonly used numbers; messenger service; account codes, and a multiple-call feature, which waives the access surcharge for multiple calls placed at the same time.

        Prepaid phone cards give you a specific number of minutes (or units) per card. Some are disposable when the unit availability reaches zero; others can be refilled by the provider.

        The key to achieving maximum savings with prepaid phone cards is to check both the per-minute rate and other charges and fees, which can add up quickly. Typically, the cards come in different denominations, often giving the user a bulk discount on higher denominations.

        Cincinnati Bell's $10 card provides 60 minute-units of domestic calling time. Its $50 card provides 500 minute-units. Both cards deduct more than one unit per minute for calls to Alaska and other offshore locations. Call time is measured in one-minute increments, so you'll be charged one unit for a two-second call. There's a pay phone surcharge of 50 cents; a directory assistance call subtracts 15 units from your balance.

        The consumer watchdog organization Consumer Action recommends you shop carefully for prepaid cards, which are available everywhere, from supermarkets to the Internet. Compare hidden costs such as service fees, per-call access surcharges, taxes and government surcharges, and pay phone surcharges. Check to see if the card has an expiration date. Ask the company for its rounding increment.

        If you're unsure about a phone card deal, buy a company's lowest-denomination card and see how it works.

        Consumer Action warns never to buy a phone card on which the scratch-off material covering that card's personal identification number has been removed. Nor should you accept a card that does not provide you with the terms and conditions of use.

        Another caveat: shield your number pad when making calls so that vandals cannot “shoulder-surf” and note your access numbers and PIN. Make sure to disconnect from the carrier before leaving a public phone, so others cannot ride on your card's coattails.


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