TELEPHONE KVETCHING….The LA Times solves a mystery, sort of:

Millions of Californians will start paying several dollars a month more for land-line phone service after AT&T’s second price increase for custom-calling features since the state lifted rate caps last year.

….Many customers used to paying $6.17 for caller ID in December, who had already seen one price increase to $7.99 a month, will now pay $9. Call waiting, speed dialing and other features that cost $3.23 in December now run $5 after two price hikes.

A few weeks ago my friends suddenly started complaining that whenever they called me they were forced to identify themselves before their call was put through. After a few days we figured out that Caller ID Blocking had been turned on for us, even though we didn’t want it. So we called AT&T to find out what was going on.

The first two times, they hung up on us after we’d been on hold for 20 minutes. The third time, I got transferred to about nine different people, including twice to India, before someone finally transferred me to “AT&T California,” where I learned, among other things, that my phone service had been switched from “Legacy AT&T” to “The New AT&T.” Fine. Whatever. But I don’t want all these new services (caller ID blocking turned out to be just one of many new services I now had), so can I get rid of them?

Long story short, the answer was no. I could get rid of them all and just pay for the two or three I wanted, but that would actually cost more. More? Yes indeed. OK then, I’ll keep them. But how do I turn off this annoying caller ID stuff? The customer service rep didn’t know, but ten minutes later after making several internal calls, she decided she could do it. No more caller ID blocking.

Whew. But then she told me that this was just the beginning. Eventually my long distance service was bound to get switched to The New AT&T™ as well. Did I want to just go ahead and make the switch now? Sure. I guess so.

But then she sighed and asked a question she had obviously asked a thousand times before: did I have a fax machine at home? Yes I did. Well, you’re not allowed to use a fax machine on The New AT&T’s long distance service. If their computers detect a fax tone on your line, they’ll automatically drop you from the flat rate plan and start charging you ten dollars a minute for all subsequent calls. Or something.

By this time, I was laughing. Even the customer service rep was sort of laughing along. She then made a desultory pitch for AT&T internet service and AT&T television service, and we hung up. But I suppose this means that eventually I’m going to have to switch my long distance to a phone company that allows me to use my fax machine.

The customer service rep I eventually talked to was actually extremely nice, but overall this was by a long margin the most annoying customer service experience I’ve had in years. And just like you, I’ve had lots of annoying customer service calls over the years. To recap: AT&T switched my service without telling me; added some new features I didn’t want; hung up the first two times I called; was flatly unable to figure out who in their vast empire I needed to talk to on the third try; eventually told me there was no way to eliminate a feature unless I wanted to pay more; and then told me that sometime soon I wouldn’t be able to use my fax machine anymore. And by the way, would I like to sign up for their internet and TV service today?

Welcome to the brave new world of telecom competition. It’s working out well, don’t you think?

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