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Posted on Mon, May 14, 2012 : 8:15 a.m.

Ten-second call racks up $37.66 charge on Ann Arbor man's phone bill

By Cindy Heflin

Kirk Westphal’s parents aren’t so good at keeping a cell phone handy. They’re prone to misplacing it or not having it charged when they need it, he said.

So, the Ann Arbor Planning Commission member wasn’t too surprised to get a collect phone call from them recently as they were on their way from New York to Michigan. They were calling to say they were about two hours away from Ann Arbor. Little did they know they were making a $37.66 call.


Pay phones aren't a common sight anymore. Here's one outside of a Pittsfield Township gas station. staff

That’s the amount that Westphal found on his AT&T phone bill a few weeks later. Westphal thought that amount was outrageous for a phone call he says probably lasted about 10 seconds and certainly no more than 30.

He immediately called the company that had billed for the call, ILD Teleservices. He punched in an account number and was routed to the phone service provider, Custom Teleconnect.

Westphal told the company representative he didn’t think $37.66 was an appropriate charge for a call that lasted less then 30 seconds. The representative offered him a 30 percent discount. “I said, ‘No thank you. Who can I talk to?’”

After a couple of more phone calls, someone at ILD offered him a 60 percent discount. He still thinks that’s too much money for the call, but he accepted the offer. “And I fired off an email to (U.S. Rep. John) Dingell to ask where I can complain about this.”

Thumbnail image for Kirk_Westphal_March_2010_2.jpg

Kirk Westphal at a 2010 Planning Commission retreat.

The charge to Westphal's account appears to be a symptom of pressure on the pay phone industry as cell phones have become the communication method of choice. Pay phones, which used to abound in public areas, are increasingly rare.

According to a Wall Street Journal article from 2011, pay phones in the U.S. are disappearing at a rate of 10 percent per year, falling from a high of 2.2 million in 2000 to about 425,000 a year ago.

Bill Perna, the general manager for Custom Teleconnect in Las Vegas, Nev., said pay phone rates have risen as providers have struggled to remain profitable amid the proliferation of cell phones. Collect interstate phone calls are among the most expensive, he said.

“One collect call that’s accepted from that pay phone can be the difference of that pay phone being there next month or not,” he said.

One reason the calls are so expensive is that several companies get a cut of the charges. They include the pay phone company, the phone service provider, the billing agent and the local carrier, in this case AT&T.

Custom Teleconnect tries to be fair with customers, he said, and frequently provides discounts when consumers are surprised by large bills. Typically, the company will block a customer's number from receiving such calls after granting a large discount, Perna said.

Westphal said he’d like to get a larger refund but is chalking the incident up to experience.

“It seems that this is just the result of deregulation and an expensive lesson. I think it will motivate my parents to have their phone charged. … They’re horrified.”


Ann English

Wed, May 16, 2012 : 12:28 a.m.

Hope Kirk's parents understand that having their phone charged means charged with electricity, not financially charged for their incoming and outgoing calls, although that's true. Wherever in Pittsfield Township the pay phone in the photo is, it looks like it's attached to a gas station wall. That is better than some other places. I forget how many years ago it was when I went to a then-Shell station at Platt and Ellsworth one winter afternoon, and used a pay phone on the edge of their pavement downhill from Platt, several car widths and gas pump islands away from the now-Citgo building. Because of all the snow that had fallen and been plowed off their pavement so cars NOT parked at gas pumps could get through, the pay phone was SURROUNDED by snow. I had to climb to get to it. Sure, it worked fine.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 4:50 p.m.

Next time send a telegram.

John of Saline

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 5:42 p.m.

Nah, I use pneumatic tubes.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 4:04 p.m.

I think that the charge, while ridiculous when you first think of it, is actually reasonable. Pay phones, and the ability to make a collect call, are really for emergency use only these days. If one call really is the difference between the phone being there or not, and it was an emergency, I'd be glad to pay $37.66 for the option to have the phone there vs. being stranded if my car was broken, mugged if someone was chasing me, etc. As another commented stated, the company has to make money and share the cost among users. As this technology is used less frequently the remaining users have to share the cost. It only makes sense. Now since this wasn't an emergency, the guy only has his own stupidity to blame for accepting a collect call, which has *never* been cheap, and his parents for making the call.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 1:37 p.m.

Funny - a few complaints about this not being newsworthy, yet a lot of comments for something not worth reading! I admit, it isn't up there with UofM football news, but it was interesting. Now - where is the sunburn news?

The Picker

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 1:05 p.m.

I'm sure Mr. Westfal took care of all this personal business after hours or the phone company may not be the only one gouging !

The Picker

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 12:58 p.m.

I appears we're still waiting for a response from Dingle.

Elaine F. Owsley

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

While this may not be world shattering, it is a cautionary tale and good information to file away if found in a similar situation. Is it that the call was "collect" that created the high price? How much would a direct call have cost. Thanks for the heads up,


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 8:05 p.m.

While cell phones have become the main way of doing most calls for many now (I have used a cell phone only for eleven years), pay phone booths serve a really valuable service. When travelling, when using a limited cell phone plan, etc. it is really nice to be able to drop a few coins in a phone to make a local call. I cannot speak on the economics of pay phone maintenance, but phone companies have so drastically eliminated the availability of pay phones there are many times that I would like to use a pay phone but there are none to be found. Case in point - a place that sees 10,000s of of people almost every week - Washtenaw Community College. Last I saw, the WCC Library (a main area of student activity) is two buildings, and about a 1/4 mile from the closest pay phone. The Campus (last I knew) was mostly a dead zone for cell phone reception. Which lead to students going way out into the middle of parking lots and other open areas (regardless of weather) to try to get good enough reception to get a cell phone call to go through. It sure seems that it would be very much in the interest of phone companies to keep enough pay phones to make them an option.... One of the things that I love about travelling in places like Canada is still the ready availability of pay phones....


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 9:39 p.m.

Thaddeus, The college operates pay phones inside the Student Center Building.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 11:43 a.m.

Oh Canada! And their highways are so lovely and pot-hole free!


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 6:49 p.m.

The cost of victrola repair is through the roof! I had to walk over a furlong to pay how much?


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 7:31 p.m.

Had I only known you were headed that way, I could have given you a lift in my new horseless carriage.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 6:21 p.m.

I've been getting a collect call attempt from a woman in a Michigan prison several days per week for two weeks now. The automated system gives me the option of rejecting the call (which I do), accepting the call, hearing a rate quote for the charges, or putting a block on future calls from that number. This last option doesn't appear to function. Perhaps the recipient of this call could have gotten a rate quote.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 1:51 p.m.

Maybe they tried and that function didn't work...


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 5:59 p.m.

For some reason, this story sounds similar to the decent of Detroit...several companies getting a cut of the phone rates have risen as providers have struggled to remain profitable. Companies = politicians; charges = taxes; pay phone rates = taxes; provider = Detroit; remain profitable = provide services.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 5:48 p.m.

Front page news!

Snehal Shah

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 4:09 p.m.

Does ignorance of the charges that shock a person puts the blame on the telco company? First of all the person accepting the collect call was ignorant of the charges and also the person did not know what a high charge means - its just an assumption. would he have complained if the charge would have been 43 instead of $ 36? what is the limit that a person thinks is too much is always subjective. We like to blame everybody else but ourselves when it comes to ignorance of how the world functions.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 10:18 p.m.

What? the world should run like a 3 Card Monty game?? That is what cheapens it all. I will never accept that world.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 6:17 p.m.

Actually, the law is clear that since there was no "meeting of the minds" there was no contract. Therefore the telecom could only charge what a judge deemed reasonable to recoup the expense of that call. Any transaction is a contract. If a 18 year old comes to your house and says would you like me to shovel your walk. You say sure. He then comes up and hands you a bill for $50,000. Who is at fault? There is no contract. Therefore the kid can not demand payment, unless he was upfront as to what it would cost.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 3:18 p.m.

I think the Michigan Public Service Commission is the right recipient for these kinds of complaints, since they regulate phone service rates and phone service providers in the state.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 9:38 p.m.

At least one phone company that does business in Michigan handled that call. The MPSC governs all carriers that do business in the State, regardless of where a call originates.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 3:30 p.m.

Doubtful the Michigan PSC has jurisdiction. The call was placed from a phone two hours from Ann Arbor, en route from New York -- i.e., pretty surely from somewhere in Ohio, or maybe Ontario.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:44 p.m.

There is a whole industry based on getting people to do things they would not do if they understood the implications. Fine print is one mechanism. Lack of or otherwise unclear information is another. I think most reasonable people would agree that for capitalism to work , all sides of a transaction should understand the key information. Gotcha is no way to run a moral economy. The question is whether recipients of the collect calls are clearly informed of the charges before accepting. In fact the caller should be clearly informed as well, so they have the option of not going through with the call if they think it would be too great a burden on the receiver. After all, the recipient will not know if it's a "we'll be there in 2 hours" type of call or a "we've been in an accident" type of call and may feel obligated to accept exorbitant charges. I think government and regulation have a clear role in getting rid of the gotcha economy.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 3:28 p.m.

...set back capitalism a century or two...

John of Saline

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

It would be interesting to know the upkeep on a pay phone nowadays. They're pretty hard (not impossible) to break, which means they're expensive to make; I wonder how expensive secondhand ones are. Someone had to check on them occasionally, though emptying coins would not be needed very often.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 8:21 p.m.

Indeed. While I do not know if any pay phones work this way, it sure seems like it would be easy enough to make pay phones such that when the coin box gets say 85% full that it sends a message to the phone company to empty it in the near future. I do not see how eliminating pay phones all together is more profitable than emplying/ servicing them less often. Although like just about any other deregulated industry where the very profitable act of corporate failure is job #1, this lucrative process of self-destruction is too often accomplished by screwing the customer, and screwing the employee.... So perhaps I just answered my own question....?


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:33 p.m.

Didn't the operator explain the charges before connecting the call? Or, was this phone one of them new-fangled jobs with buttons, instead of a crank on the side? Personally, I still prefer to use the telegraph office, but that's just me.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:27 p.m.

Read the fine print on your cellphone contracts also AND do not accept any overseas collect phone calls on it before you do. Unless you have special arrangements you may end up paying about $10 min (not 10 cents) like I did (only once). It wasn't some obscure company doing the charging it was my Bigshot carrier.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:55 p.m.

An embarrassingly slow local news day, I see.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:53 p.m.

Wile I agree that it seems like a lot of money, complaining about this is roughly analogous to complaining about cassette recorders being "overpriced". Use of an almost obsolete technology/service will cost a premium. But balance that with how much more convenient and less expensive "long distance" has become. I'm old enough to remember when you had to consider where and when you were calling. Never having those worries is worth a few careless people getting a few high phone bills. Oh, and if this happened to me, mom and dad would get a friendly reminder about keeping their phones charged and handy, and probably a request for reimbursement.

Macabre Sunset

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 5:09 p.m.

In turn, maybe they'd send you a copy of the receipts they received from gas stations, and ask you to split the travel cost of visiting you. In a friendly way, of course.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:34 p.m.

While I agree that keeping a cell phone charged is the best policy, there are many older folks that grew up with pay phones being ubiquitous, not realizing how much things have changed in a short time. That being said, that is a hell of a ripoff. You could buy a throw-away tracfone with at least 60 minutes on it for that price.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:26 p.m.

I am convinced that is trying to be more like The Onion every day... "Local Man SHOCKED to Learn Collect Calls Are Expensive". How is this news? If I call to report my harrowing experience of getting sunburnt while spending my first weekend of the summer outdoors, will you guys cover it? It has to be at least as exciting as collect calls or a man seeing a swarm of bees at a shopping mall.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 2:25 p.m.

53 Comments Readers must have an interest!


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 6:32 p.m.

the only reason this is even remotely a "story" is due to the fact the main character of the cell phone-out-to-get-you plot is an Ann Arbor public figure....


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:15 p.m.

To me, this looks more like's attempt at a "Ruth to the Rescue" or "7 on your side" style report, which is the lowest form of useless, pandering journalism.

Paula Gardner

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:40 p.m.

If anyone besides you would be surprised or interested to learn you were sunburnt, we might consider it. One criteria for deciding what we write involves twists to shared or universal experiences. When we learned about this instance, some of the newsroom comments included surprise that there are still pay phones and recollections of spending 25 cents on a call. Telling the story gave us a chance to raise those insights for a larger audience that we thought might find it interesting. But if you don't ... that's OK. Hopefully you'll find something else engaging in our story mix:)


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:22 p.m.

the pay phone they used was probably covered in untold amounts of germs and disease.... the $36 might as well been a doctor visit copay!


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 4:46 p.m.


Monica R-W

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 6:37 a.m.

You have a good point here Mikey!


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:56 p.m.

"germs and disease"........I think you are just scratching the surface, wink wink


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:15 p.m.

The 30% then 60% "discounts" immediately offered to the customer after their complaint is an admission of overcharging. If the customer had no complained then the telco company would have gotten away with their blatant overcharging. As is the case, they admitted that their fee scheme is blatant manipulation and gross overcharging for their service by offering to cut the bill. It's plainly greed on the part of the telco company. That's the problem with capitalism. Greed.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:47 p.m.

@SMC: According to your logic, had the charge been $25,000 for a 10 second phone call it would have been reasonable and what someone who can't/won't use a cell phone should expect. Or, if you agree that $25,000 would be unreasonable, where then do you draw the line?


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:03 p.m.

Boy they sure know how to make money: "Custom Teleconnect tries to be fair with customers, he said, and frequently provides discounts when consumers are surprised by large bills. Typically, the company will block a customer's number from receiving such calls after granting a large discount"

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 12:59 p.m.

""It seems that this is just the result of deregulation ..." No this is a result of technology. Cell phones are now ubiquitous. So as the article implies the dying pay phone industry is hanging on to "life" by a thread. What "regulating" does Mr. Politician think would change the inevitable? Its the pathetic notion that Government is the answer to everything....including your parents refusal to own a 6 dollar car charger.

The Picker

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 12:48 p.m.

Mix, What gives you the idea the Government isn't greedy ?


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

Craig, If I got o buy ANY other service, I am informed PRIOR to getting the bill. Legally, for there to be a contract there must be a meeting of the minds. Since this company CHOOSES not to let people know the rates before hand, there is no contract. THAT is the type of regulation he is talking about. If the BILLING company said, this call will be billed at $5.00 per minute with a minimum of 3 minutes and a connection charge of $5, I would have ZERO problem with it. I guarantee that did not happen.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 5:43 p.m.

This isn't necessarily the result of technology. If his parents had called using 1-800-CALL-ATT the call would have cost $7.48, about double what most people probably remember collect calls costing. The collect call company should have disclosed their price structure before Mr. Westphal accepted charges. If they did not, he should have inquired. Even in pre-cell phone days, it was well-known dialing Zero to make a collect call was significantly more expensive than dialing a discount 1-800 number.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 3:12 p.m.

A good regulation would be simply to inform customers of what the charges will be. There is no reason they couldn't require those pay phone company's to say something like "you have a collect call from {insert name}. You will be charged a connect fee of $35 plus $1.66 per minute or any portion thereof, do you accept the charges"


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 3:03 p.m.

Craig.......Rant all you want.You are one of the few ranters that I enjoy...

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 2:12 p.m.

"greed" is a relative term. Do you think the payphone industry is thriving while the number of phones has dropped to less than 20% of the numbers 12 years ago? The only regulating that will work is if the Government props up the payphone industry and subsidizes it. Is that what you want?


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.

It seems that if government isn't the answer, then greed is ok.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.

Let's see who stands on the side of unregulated, avaricious, anti consumer business practices by blaming the consumer for not spending $6.

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 1:03 p.m.

To add to my rant...whats wrong with this country isn't the outrageous bill, its the lack of personal responsibility that led to it and the subsequent response from Mr. Westphal who's default setting is more Government is the answer to anything.

Dog Guy

Mon, May 14, 2012 : 12:38 p.m.

Would that all public servants were as zealous in protecting other people's money as in protecting their own.


Mon, May 14, 2012 : 12:51 p.m.

Would all people take as much active interest in public affairs using many hours of their own time without remuneration or shoot anonymous spit balls from the peanut gallery at others.