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For an unlisted number, press $

A state lawmaker aims to disconnect rising charges for privacy.

March 28, 2008|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In California, where celebrities, billionaires and the rest of us prize a little privacy at home, the price of going unlisted is going up, big-time.

Though cellphone companies charge nothing for unlisted phone numbers, consumers with traditional telephones connected by wires are often paying nearly $25 a year to stay out of the phone book and directory assistance. That adds up when you consider all the other add-on charges on phone bills.

Since the state's telephone industry was largely deregulated in 2006, market leader AT&T Inc. and other operators have boosted monthly charges for unlisted numbers, all for something they're not doing -- giving out your number.

In the last year, AT&T raised its fees to $1.25 a month from 28 cents, while smaller carriers' rates climbed to as much as $1.99 from less than 30 cents.

The unlisting charge is especially onerous for low-income people, who don't have extra money to pay for their privacy, said Richard Fritz, 60, a retired postal worker in San Diego. "To me, it's reminiscent of extortion," he said. "They put me in a position where I have to pay not to have my name revealed."

Fritz said he gave up his longtime unlisted number recently "because every penny counts when I'm making $24,000 a year."

Fritz is among the estimated 40% of residential phone users in California with unlisted numbers.

Phone companies say the rates help offset other costs. But consumer groups accuse them of gouging customers.

Californians should not have to pay for privacy, a right established by the state constitution, said Paul Stephens, policy director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego consumer education organization.

"When an individual exercises that right to privacy, there should be no charge connected with it," Stephens said.

On Tuesday the fee matter will come before the state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, and the sides are expected to square off. At issue is a bill to eliminate fees for unlisted phone numbers charged by phone and cable companies.

Three of California's four largest phone companies oppose the bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). The fourth and largest, AT&T, said it had yet to take a formal position.

But all of them agree that prices for having an unlisted phone number as well as other features, such as call waiting, are best set by a deregulated, competitive marketplace.

Before 2006, they were approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.

"We continuously evaluate all aspects of our services, including our prices to ensure they are competitive," not just with other fixed-line operators but with wireless and Internet communications providers, said H. Gordon Diamond, a spokesman for AT&T.

Verizon Communications Inc., with 4 million lines, charges $1.50 and is expected to go to $1.75 a month Tuesday. There are costs associated with separating listed from nonlisted numbers, spokesman Jonathan Davies said.

A much smaller carrier called SureWest Communications, which serves the Sacramento area, increased its unlisted number fee last year to $1.99 a month from 30 cents. Citizens Communications Co., which provides phone service under the brand name Frontier, also charges $1.99, a 99% jump for its customers in parts of Northern California.

Both companies contend that revenue from unlisted number fees is used partially to offset other costs, such as providing free caller ID blocking to prevent numbers from being shown to recipients of outgoing calls.

Kuehl, the author of the free unlisted-number bill, dismissed such arguments as "gobbledygook." The senator said she didn't mind paying extra "for things I don't particularly have to have." But paying more for an unlisted number "could have a chilling effect on privacy."

The phone companies say they understand some of Kuehl's concerns and would be willing to provide free unlisted numbers for people who have been victims of crime or those who fear they could be the target of violence if their phone numbers were made available to the public.

People with unlisted phone numbers know, of course, there is a degree of futility to it. Unlisted numbers show up on telephone number websites and public records of all kinds. And even the national Do Not Call list doesn't always stop early-evening solicitors.

Why the phone companies decided to raise their fees for unlisted numbers is unclear, said Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco consumer advocacy group that supports Kuehl's bill.

"Do they want people to go back to listing their numbers so they can sell their database?" he mused. "Or do they just want to squeeze every last dime from somebody with an unlisted number and turn it into a profit center?"

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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