My father got a bill Saturday from Telecom USA for $68.65 for three collect calls – 3 minutes, 2 minutes and 2 minutes – on November 17, when I called him three times from the holding cell at One Police Plaza in New York City. That's just shy of $10 a minute.
The people who make calls from One Police Plaza are mostly poor. Their possessions have been confiscated, they're sitting in a disgusting cage breathing urine fumes while police fill out paperwork, and they haven't been charged with anything – not arraigned, not booked, nothing. And in order to get through to anyone, even just for one minute, the prisoners have to dock their families ten bucks.
Telecom USA is a subsidiary of MCI, which itself is a subsidiary of Verizon. It specializes in small services, advertised to working-class people on grounds that they're inexpensive. “Minute Pass” is written about on Telecom USA's web site as “The prepaid card with great rates – home and away. Get rates as low as 3¢ a minute and your minutes never expire. Get 100 BONUS minutes on your first recharge!” “TalkSmarterUSA” is “a long distance plan with no frills and no long-term commitment. Just cost-effective calling and a reliable coast-to-coast network.”
But the thing for which Telecom USA is most well known is 10-10-321 and its successors, 10-10-220 and 10-10-900 (1010220.com is an earlier Google search return for “Telecom USA” than telecomusa.com). Popularized during Clinton's corporate telecomm consolidation, these would enable you to “dial around” your long-distance carrier to give you better rates on long distance calls. The reason I know that is the same reason anyone who was a child around the same time I was might: I remember how heavily these features were advertised, big-time celebrity endorsements and everything.
The cheap rates did not last as long as the memory of those commercials, and anyone using the service out of habit will by now have noticed that they're much more expensive these days, having jumped 9.9 percent in 2001 and another 80 percent a year later. The fact that wireless and a number of landline service plans don't charge extra for long distance means that the people stuck using these are the ones most vulnerable to scamming, the poor. 10-10-321 has a flat service rate of $0.20 per minute, which, through fees, actually turns out to be $0.2276, if you can believe that. Anyone wishing to complain is not, ironically, offered a telephone number to call, but an email address. “We urge you to contact us via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you have” is the entirety of the site's “Contact Us” section.
Basically, Telecom USA is the telecommunications equivalent of a payday lender (small services offered to the poor and packed with minutiae to rip them off), except it's owned by Verizon, the telecommunications equivalent of a bailed-out investment firm. Verizon is emblematic of the worst abuses of the austerity-industrial complex, dodging taxes, claiming rebates, spending tens of millions on lobbying, laying off thousands of workers, giving its executives exorbitant bonuses, turning over millions of call records to government spies and championing Internet-restricting legislative measures.
An email request for information on Telecom USA's involvement in my call (through the phone in jail, through 1-800-COLLECT or through my father's service provider) was not immediately answered. Nor did Verizon respond to a request for comment. But that's for the same reason as the lack of redress for the grievances of striking Verizon workers: capital is not interested in making nice with its employees and consumers – if HQ is yielding huge profits, everything is fine. The ownership class' diplomacy is relegated to a whole different sphere of economic activity than 99 percent of us will ever know. For instance, in 2008, AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless completed a wireless asset swap, “following regulatory approval from the FCC and Department of Justice.”
Under the terms of the agreement, AT&T Mobility acquired some former Rural Cellular Corporation properties previously acquired by Verizon Wireless, including licenses, network assets and subscribers, in the Burlington, Vermont, metropolitan service area and in rural service areas (RSAs) in New York (RSA-2), Vermont (RSA-1, RSA-2) and Washington (RSA-2, RSA-3). AT&T also acquired a cellular license from Verizon Wireless in portions of Kentucky (RSA-6).
Also under the terms of the agreement, Verizon Wireless acquired from AT&T Mobility some former Dobson Communications Corporation properties, including licenses, network assets and subscribers, in Kentucky (RSA-6 and RSA-8). Verizon Wireless also acquired ten MHz of PCS spectrum in a number of areas and received an additional cash consideration from AT&T Mobility. These transactions satisfy the divestiture requirements related to AT&T Mobility's acquisition of Dobson last year.
These companies are in the business of swapping entire regional markets; they do not have time to worry about the paupers and debt peons waiting endlessly in a holding cell in New York City, and they do not have time to worry about the communications workers whose livelihoods are at stake.
This is the face of America right now: a bill from the corporate giant who has ensured that you can't go to jail for protesting corporate governance without it extracting $68.65 from you.
Later in the week of these events, I got the following email from my father:
So, I call Telecom USA to speak to a “customer care representative” about why they charge $68.65 for three collect calls totaling seven minutes. She asks me if I've sent the payment yet. I said no, I didn't intend to. She says, “Well, since you haven't sent the payment yet, we can offer you a one-time courtesy charge of only …” Then she disappears for about 30 seconds to consult her computer and comes back with, ” … only $24.02.” This 65 percent off “one-time courtesy charge” gives some indication of what an enormous rip-off these maggots are making.