Time for an update on one of my all-time favorite fees — the fee that telecom companies charge to not provide you a service.
For the record:
The headline on an earlier online version of this story incorrectly said Time Warner Cable's fee was $2.99 a month. It's $1.99.
That service is publishing your name in a phone book, which is undoubtedly a pricey endeavor for phone and cable companies.
So if a customer asks that his or her name not be included in the directory, you'd think you'd be saving the telecom provider a little cash. That's one less entry in the database, for example, one less dollop of ink at the printer.
But this month, Time Warner Cable more than doubled its fee for an unlisted number to a whopping $1.99 a month, or nearly $24 a year.
The higher fee applies immediately for new customers. Existing customers will see their unlisted number charge go up in January.
Again, that's a recurring fee — now one of the highest of its type in the telecom industry — for something Time Warner isn't doing for customers.
What prompted the increase? I asked Jim Gordon, a Time Warner spokesman, if the company's own costs had gone up.
He declined to answer that question directly, saying only that this is "an administrative fee" and that it's "consistent with our competitors in this space."
Actually, it's higher. Verizon Communications charges $1.75 a month not to list your name in its phone book and not to give your number to people who call directory assistance. AT&T charges $1.25 monthly not to provide these services.
OK, so why is the unlisted number fee charged on a recurring basis? After all, your ongoing preference can be recorded with a few taps at a keyboard, and then it's done.
"It's a recurring service that you're provided throughout the month," Gordon explained.
Let's savor that a moment, shall we?
Time Warner and other telecom companies are charging for a service that consists of them basically not doing anything. And because they continue not to do anything month after month, they keep charging you on the grounds that it's a recurring service.
Time Warner's fee is all the more remarkable because the company doesn't produce its own phone book. It pays Sprint to compile all its customers' names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone company dominates a particular market for inclusion in that firm's directory.
Just to be clear: That's $1.99 a month not to be in a phone book that Time Warner doesn't even publish.
AT&T's and Verizon's fees are a little more understandable. After all, they make extra cash selling ads in their phone books. The more people who choose not to be listed, the less valuable the directory becomes to advertisers, so the phone company wants to discourage people from leaving.
But Time Warner isn't in the phone book business. Its recurring fee for unlisted numbers is a money grab, pure and simple.
And the unlisted number charge isn't the only way that the cable giant has started reaching deeper into people's pockets.
As of Aug. 6, the company raised its fee for customers to pay their bill by phone to $4.99 from $2.99. It also raised its fee for ordering pay-per-view by phone to $4.99 from $2.99.
I'm not trying to tell Time Warner how to run its business, but are such heavy-handed charges really the best way to maintain customer loyalty, especially during economic times like these?
"It's always a good time to give your customers options and choices, and we do that every day," Gordon replied.
State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) introduced legislation in 2009 that would have prohibited telecom companies from charging a fee for unlisted numbers. She reasoned that protecting your privacy shouldn't cost you more.
But Pavley abandoned the bill after fierce opposition by phone and cable companies.
I told her about Time Warner doubling its charge. She wasn't pleased.
"This kind of an increase — during a time of such economic hardship for so many families — is plain wrong," Pavley said. "The fact that as many as 50% of Californians have chosen an unlisted number demonstrates that a large portion of the public care about the privacy of their phone number."
She added that "it's simply ludicrous that this 'service,' which involves doing absolutely nothing, should require a charge."
Unfortunately, she said the telecom industry will "kill any bill that even hints at impacting their profits." So don't hold your breath that things will change any time soon.
I recently wrote about a Target customer who was told he'd have to pay $4 to activate a $25 gift card. I also wrote that no one at Target returned my repeated calls for comment.
Well, I finally got a call from a company spokeswoman, Janna Fischer, who said the customer must have been purchasing a Visa or American Express gift card, both of which are sold at Target and come with activation fees.
"Our Target gift cards do not have any sort of purchase fee attached," she said.
Good to have that cleared up.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to email@example.com