Card trick: Paying for nothing at all

Harper Girvin's quest for release from long-distance bills has been a bit arduous. First, over a year ago he and his wife– self-described "practitioners of frugality"– decided to stop making direct calls and instead use 600-minute calling cards from Sam's Club. Problem is, they didn't think to put a "Don't Dial Direct!" sign next to the phone.

So when his sister-in-law came to visit last year and made three "less-than-one-minute" direct calls, she didn't realize that her hosts would be paying dearly: almost $5 for each call.

After that, Girvin told his local service provider, Sprint, to switch from AT&T long-distance to "no carrier," and assumed that was the last he'd hear about long-distance plans and their attendant costs.

But then this fall, Girvin got a postcard that informed him, by his account, that Sprint "would be billing me an additional $3.95 per month for long-distance service fees." Puzzled by the news, he went to the Sprint store in Seminole Square and asked why he was going to be charged $3.95 for long-distance service if he had no long-distance service.

Far from being assured– as he had expected to be– that the fee wouldn't apply to him, Girvin says he was told that "Sprint would waive this fee if I added some extra feature to my phone service, like Caller ID. The cheapest feature they could add would be Line Guard for $4.95 per month. This might protect me from gnawing rats or whatever." But Girvin likes to do his own wiring.

"I (nicely!) declined," he reported in his emailed account, "remarked (nicely!) about Sprint's being a monopoly, wondered aloud (nicely!) how many folks would be dropping their land lines in favor of all-cell-phone use, etc., etc., and I left (nicely!).

"Anything we can do about this?" he wrote me, "write the FCC?"

I called Margaret Wright, Sprint regional public relations manager for Virginia and Tennessee. She explained that while the postcards were sent to all Sprint customers regardless of their long-distance plan (or lack of one), the new fee will apply only to customers on the "Sprint Sense" plan.

Girvin would be charged only if he had a Sprint Sense long-distance plan. Since he doesn't, it's a moot point. Wright checked to be sure Girvin's account lists him as no-carrier, and it does.

I think it's reasonable to wonder why Sprint sent the notice en masse instead of limiting it to Sprint Sense customers– but also reasonable to wonder why Girvin didn't read the card more carefully. In any case, Wright confirmed that the Sprint store employee "didn't understand Girvin was 'no carrier' " and would not be affected. She also said that the employee, who remembered Girvin and his cynical comments about Sprint, should have dug a little deeper and resolved the matter instead of letting him leave frustrated.

Wright said she'd be happy to talk to Girvin. She also directed me to the company's website,, where the various long-distance plans and rates are described. Now that he's heard the last of long-distance bills, however, I doubt that he's going to visit that website anytime soon.


The latest on Lethal

 As Lethal Wreckers watchers know, Jonathan Coleman's showdown with Lethal in Charlottesville General District Court ["Suing Lethal," November 4, 2004] resulted in an award of $500 plus court costs. Coleman sued the embattled local towing service for overcharging him, in violation of Virginia Code section 46-2.1233.1, when his car was towed from a downtown lot last September.

Coleman has now filed garnishment papers against owner George Morris and Provident Bank, where Lethal does business. Coleman expects to collect $615.50 ($500 for damages, $36 for court costs, $72 for filing and service fees, and $7.50 for interest) on or before January 26. I'll let you know when he gets his check.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville, 22905.