In the zone: Shrink your phone bill

Funny how things work: If Xiaopu Liu's phone hadn't conked out, she wouldn't have gone in search of a neighbor's phone. And if she hadn't taken her Sprint bill with her when she went in search of that phone, her neighbor wouldn't have been able to compare it to her own– or point out that Liu was paying a "zone charge" the neighbor had never heard of. Liu soon discovered that two other neighbors weren't being charged, either.

Liu set out to learn what a zone charge is, and why she and her husband had been paying $3.75 a month for it since their service began in November 1996. They'd been charged more than $325 during that time– whereas at least some of their immediate Forest Lakes neighbors had been charged nothing.

The first Sprint employee Liu talked to explained that zone charges apply when a customer is far enough from the central office to be more expensive to access. As for why other residents of English Oaks Circle– who were equally distant– weren't assessed the fee, the employee couldn't say.

That was just the first of "more than eight" calls Liu claims she made to various departments at Sprint in the following three weeks. Each time, she says, she got a different person.

For a while, things looked hopeful: An employee named Michelle said that Liu shouldn't be billed for the zone charge, and promised to remove it. But when Liu asked how she'd go about getting her $325 refunded, she claims she was told she'd have to find out when Forest Lakes stopped being assessed a zone charge and then call back with the date.

After discussing the situation with colleagues, Liu decided it was absurd for Sprint to make such a request of a customer; where would she even begin to look for the answer? So Liu called again.

This time, Liu says, she spoke with an employee named Tom in Customer Solutions, who promised to do some research and get back to her. The next day, he left an alarming message: The zone charge was correct– and not only was he going to restore it to her bill, he was going to start billing her neighbors as well.

"Each person lives in a different location," she claims he said, and Sprint "can't check all the accounts." Huh?

I spoke with Margaret Wright, regional public affairs manager for Tennessee and Virginia, who gave me a primer on zone charges. They were originally assessed by several companies– including Sprint's predecessor here, Centel– to recover the cost of cable needed to reach remote customers. Sprint inherited the practice, which is regulated by the State Corporation Commission (SCC), when it bought Centel in the mid-'90s.

Wright said that the zone-charge system is "confusing" for Sprint reps, which explains how one family at Forest Lakes could be charged the fee while three others weren't. "It's a process we need to work on and simplify," she explained– so much so, in fact, that Sprint will be filing a request with the SCC within 60 days to drop the charges entirely. "It's a fee that's not proper in today's world," she commented.

In Liu's case, ironically, the zone charge was correct– but, in light of its impending demise, Wright stated that she'll remove it from Liu's account. She'll also make sure it doesn't get added to other Forest Lakes phone bills, saying Sprint would just pretend those lucky folks had been "on a sort of scholarship."

Wright called Liu the same day to make sure that, aside from the zone-charge confusion, she was happy with Sprint's service– and, I'm pleased to report, issued a $100 credit.

The melange of charges in phone bills can be notoriously tough to decode; they can also be wrong. And, unfortunately- as Liu's neighbors now know- they can be wrong in the company's favor.

It's worth the time it takes to call and ask a representative to give you an item-by-item tour of the charges. Perhaps, if enough customers call, they'll make the bills simpler to read in the first place.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4453, Charlottesville 22905.