Phantom Phone Bandits

   I remember the phone call well, because I always feel like an idiot talking to answering machines. Rather than talking to my children from Phantom Ranch as I had hoped, I stood in the blazing heat listening to my daughter’s recorded voice. Disappointed, I babbled inanely for a few seconds and hung up.

   A month later I received my phone bill. Included was a charge from a company named “Zero Plus” for my little message. It was listed as a 3-minute call, and the charge was $8.95.

   Assuming there must be some mistake, I called Zero Plus and spoke with a man who seemed used to fielding such complaints. He smugly told me that the minimum charge was 3 minutes, that $8.95 was the Sunday rate, and that I was lucky I hadn’t called on a week day, when the minimum charge was $12.95. When I suggested that the rates seemed excessive, he said his company was duly licenced by the FCC to charge that much. And that was that.

   Wondering how Zero Plus was collecting the fees for a call I made with my AT&T card, I started researching. According to Jim Davis, who is in charge of telecommunications for Fred Harvey Company, the Phantom Ranch pay phones were taken over by the Zero Plus gremlins for a month or two last fall. (I have spoken with others who ended up with similar charges on their phone bills.) Since the National Parks only have contracts with Sprint and AT&T, this takeover was not entirely legal. When companies such as MCI and Sprint take over a pay phone, they offer reasonable rates; companies such as Zero Plus do not. According to the AT&T representative I spoke with, they seek out pay phones in popular tourist locations, “such as Grand Canyon and Disneyworld”, take over the phone service from AT&T, and by the time anyone finds out about it and switches the service back, they’ve made off with a couple of months worth of exhorbitant rates.

   For now, according to Jim Davis, the Phantom Ranch phones have been reverted to AT&T, but if you make a call and hear “Thank you for using Zero Plus...”, hang up and run.

Jeri Ledbetter