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Jewish World Review Sept. 1, 2000 / 1 Elul 5760

Jane Byrant Quinn

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Consumer Reports


Get the 411 on Directory Assistance

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- A FRIEND recently asked me a question about her phone company's directory assistance service. "Don't get me started," I groaned, and then couldn't keep my mouth shut. Here's my rant: We're paying more and getting less.

Have you any idea what it costs to call an information operator? A long-distance query through AT&T's traditional 555-1212 service costs $1.99 per call, up 80 percent in the past seven months. Its shortcut 00 service costs $1.49, up 50 percent.

If it's any consolation, you can get two numbers at a time. But frankly, it's cheaper to call a friend and ask her to look the numbers up.

The lowest-cost way to get information is not to use the phone at all. For local calls, go to the phone book. For long-distance calls, use one of the free directories on the Web. I've had the best luck finding numbers with www.anywho.com, www.555-1212.com and www.yellowpages (or whitepages).com.

But half of America isn't on the Web. And even if you are, you may not have high-speed lines. When you're in a particular hurry for a phone number and don't have high-speed lines, it's faster to call directory assistance than to wait for a slow connection through your computer modem.

I know, because I live in the sticks where high-speed Internet service can't be had. So I often fall back on classic directory assistance to find the people and companies I need to talk to.

Most likely, your lowest-cost phone option is to dial 411, the service provided by your local telephone company. You'll find its price in the front of your phone book.

Local 411 information costs 30 cents to 95 cents per call, according to the Telecommunications Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C. In many cities, the first one to five local numbers are free each month.

Most of the local phone companies also provide long-distance 411 information, at 85 cents to 95 cents per call. You don't have to know the area code, only the city and state you're calling. If you thought you called for a local business number, but the firm operates from out of state, you'll be charged the higher, long-distance information fee.

The higher-priced option is dialing 00, for customers of Sprint, AT&T or a small carrier that buys the service from AT&T; or 10-10-9000 if you're a WorldCom customer. Current charges: $1.99 at Sprint, $1.49 at AT&T, and 99 cents at MCI WorldCom.

Or, you can dial the area code plus 555-1212. This also takes you to directory assistance through your long-distance carrier. But you typically pay more for 555 service--perhaps $1.40 to $2 per call.

If you ask an operator for an area code, that's another charge. Businesses sometimes block 555-1212, so employees can't use it.

(Some discount services give you long-distance 555-1212 for less. AOL Long Distance, for example, currently charges me 95 cents per call.)

One bright note: If you need a toll-free number, you can still get free directory assistance from 800-555-1212. But I find that number busy more often than I used to.

More of my rant--it's one thing to dial directory assistance, and quite another to get the telephone number you want.

My local carrier is Verizon. In the past four weeks, its directory assistance told me there was no listing for three different firms I asked for: a long-established nonprofit in Washington, D.C., a long-established economic research firm in Arlington, Va., and a restaurant in Ridgefield, Conn., that reopened five months ago under a new name.

You're charged the usual fee for directory assistance, even when it can only be called non-assistance.

In each of these three cases, I followed up by dialing the area code plus 555-1212. Surprise, surprise--the phone numbers were there.

Kitty Lindner, Verizon's vice president for operator services, says that different long-distance services use different databases. (I'll say.)

After checking the numbers, she told me that the nonprofit I wanted was listed in an obscure corner of Bell Atlantic's government listings. The economics firm had somehow been overlooked. The restaurant's new name hadn't yet been transferred to Verizon's database, by the local phone company.

Lindner said she was fixing it. But when I called 411 one week later, the numbers were still AWOL.

Out of curiosity, I looked in five online directories for the same three phone numbers. No hope for the restaurant, but the other two firms were in the directories mentioned above.



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