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Consumer 11.0: She's putting in a call for fairness

What if you got a check at a restaurant that charged you $100 for "food" but didn't say what you'd supposedly ordered? Or a credit card statement that demanded $150 for "purchases" but didn't detail what you'd bought?

What if you got a check at a restaurant that charged you $100 for "food" but didn't say what you'd supposedly ordered? Or a credit card statement that demanded $150 for "purchases" but didn't detail what you'd bought?

That's how Bernice Keebler felt last fall, when Verizon sent her a phone bill listing $4.19 in charges for six "local calls," but wouldn't tell her which calls generated the fees - unless she got a lawyer and a subpoena. Adding injury to insult, the phone company said she could see such details in the future, but only if she paid a onetime fee of $40 plus 2 cents per call.

That just didn't seem right to Keebler, a retired Hatboro-Horsham schoolteacher. And she still felt that way even after Verizon partially relented, showing her details of the six calls she first asked about.

As Keebler put it when first called, she was standing up for a principle: "I think I have the right to know what I am paying for."

In the months since, I've kept track as Keebler has tenaciously pursued her complaint. But before I catch you up, a word about what sets her story apart.

In most fights with big businesses, consumers have few options. They can argue with a company, and perhaps win a policy change or a "just this once" concession. They can complain to a government agency and hope someone takes notice. They can post angry barbs online, or maybe call a consumer writer who might take up the cause.

But because it involves a traditional regulated utility, Keebler's dispute with Verizon belongs to a special category - for better, worse, or perhaps some of both. And, unlike most of us, Keebler has repeatedly insisted on her right to be heard - all the way to a formal hearing last month before Mary D. Long, a judge for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Keebler argued to Long that more than fairness was at stake. If consumers can't see what they're being charged for, she said, they can't protect themselves from mistakes - or worse.

"I'm not alleging that there was any mischarge, but it would be possible for the company to charge people for calls they never made," Keebler said.

There is certainly plenty of precedent for improper charges on phone bills. It was the local phone industry, you may remember, that brought us the delightful concept of "cramming," in which charges by third-party companies are crammed onto monthly phone bills - typically less than $5 or $10, to make them more likely to fly under a customer's radar.

At the hearing, Keebler brought up another example. Last fall, Verizon's more loosely regulated sister company, Verizon Wireless, agreed to refund more than $50 million to about 15 million subscribers for what the cellphone carrier said were "accidental data charges" on customers' bills.

The wireless carrier also paid a $25 million civil penalty to end an inquiry by the Federal Communications Commission, whose chairman said at the time, "People shouldn't find mystery fees when they open their phone bills."

So how does Verizon, one of the local carriers that still bear the legacy of the old Ma Bell monopoly, answer Keebler's complaint?

Rules are rules, the company says. Specifically, it says that its tariff approved by the PUC spells out the terms just as they were presented to Keebler - including the $40-plus-2-cents-per-call fee she'd have to pay to see where future mystery calls landed.

The regulations "set forth what information must be included on each customer's bills. The only calls that must be itemized and printed on the customer's bills are toll calls," Nancy Dascher, Verizon manager of government relations, explained to the judge.

And why weren't the six calls in question "toll calls"? It may seem strange in a day when cellphone carriers charge no more to call California than to call next door, but in the 20th-century vernacular of your local phone company, "toll calls" are only those outside the multiple geographical "bands" that define your "local calling area" - even though Keebler's "Local Area Unlimited Usage Option" only gives her unlimited usage in Band 1.

In other words, Keebler gets unmetered calls to Ambler or Jenkintown from her Willow Grove home. But she has to pay a fee - though apparently not a "toll" - to call Flourtown, Norristown, or Conshohocken.

But here's the catch - and the reason this tale seems like a journey down the rabbit hole: Keebler and her husband, Edward, both have cellphones, and aim to use them for every toll call. So the only reason her fight began was that she was getting billed unexpectedly for not-local-enough calls, but couldn't tell which were triggering the fees.

Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski says that without the special arrangements that justify the $40 fee, the company doesn't have ready access to details of customers' metered local calls - it just keeps the meter tab. And he says Keebler could avoid the whole problem by paying more than her current "bare-bones" $24 a month.

"What it boils down to is that Ms. Keebler wants a specialized service that Verizon does offer, but she doesn't want to pay for it," Gierczynski says.

Keebler, awaiting the judge's ruling, begs to differ. Like me, she questions the idea that a huge, computer-savvy carrier can't make metered-call available, at least online, for those who question them.

All she wants is basic fairness: the right to see what she's being billed for, not just the bottom line.