UPDATE - I thought it was just me....Directory Services Often Make Wrong Call

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Directory Services Often Make Wrong Call June 18, 2000


At least one out of three calls to directory assistance resulted in a wrong number, in a test by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Given three chances each, neither Ameritech nor AT&T nor MCI WorldCom could find the phone number for the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone companies.

SERVICE WHO COST ACCURACY NOTABLE NUMBERS THEY COULDN'T FIND 411 Ameritech .95 63% America Online (missed 2 of 3); AT&T Corporation Headquarters (2 of 3); Edward E. Whitacre, SBC Communications CEO who oversees Ameritech (1 of 3) 10-10-ATT or '00' for AT&T customers AT&T .99 Illinois, $1.49 for out of state 65% Green Mill Cocktail Lounge (missed 1 of 3); Archdiocese of Chicago chancellor's office (2 of 3); journalist Bob Woodward (1 of 3) 10-10-9000 or '00' for MCI WorldCom customers MCI WorldCom .99 59% Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University (missed 2 of 3); Six Flags Great America in Gurnee (3 of 3); Illinois Supreme Court (2 of 3) They also couldn't find Chicago Ald. Burton Natarus, the Fermilab director's office, author Studs Terkel or many other listings in printed directories.

Nationwide, consumers waste nearly a million dollars a day on wrong numbers. Consumers make at least 2 billion calls for directory assistance each year, industry analysts say. Even accepting the industry's claim of 85 percent accuracy, consumers waste $300 million a year.

The companies didn't come close to that standard in the Sun-Times test. AT&T was right 65 percent of the time, Ameritech 63 percent, and MCI 59 percent.

Their success rate varied by the location of the target.

Don't be fooled by Ameritech's heavily advertised service, giving numbers for the entire country. Ameritech is far less accurate than MCI and AT&T for numbers outside of the Chicago area.

And don't fall for MCI and AT&T's 10-10 advertising campaigns, if you need a number in Chicago. Here, 411 is far more accurate.

Calling for directory assistance is an adventure. The Sun-Times made 360 calls, checking 40 numbers three times on three services.

"What state is San Antonio in?" an MCI operator asked.

"How do you spell Gore? G-O-R?" an Ameritech operator asked.

And an AT&T operator wanted to know, "You mean the White House, White House?"

Dial 411, Ameritech's service, and ask for America Online's headquarters in Dulles, Va. The operator tells you that Dulles doesn't exist. That's 95 cents gone.

Dial MCI WorldCom's 10-10-9000 and ask for Comiskey Park. You get the phone numbers for a shrieking fax machine or a disconnected number. That's 99 cents down the drain.

Dial 10-10-ATT-00 for the parking meter complaint line at the City of Chicago, and AT&T connects you to the Mid-City Parking Garage. That's another 99 cents.

In the Sun-Times test, on national numbers, AT&T was the best, scoring 71 percent right, MCI was right 61 percent of the time, and Ameritech got only 47 percent right.

But on Ameritech's home turf in Chicago, 411 is more accurate, scoring 74 percent, followed by AT&T at 61 percent and MCI at 58 percent.

Ameritech, in three tries, couldn't find the listed phone numbers for Comiskey Park or Al Gore's office in Carthage, Tenn.

AT&T, in three tries, couldn't find the home of University of Chicago law professor Martin Marty, or the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

MCI, in three tries, couldn't find Yellowstone National Park, Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, or U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush's office in Washington.

The industry's claim of 85 percent accuracy is "just hot air," said Gary Brown, whose Decision Data Collection of McLean, Va., tests accuracy for telephone companies.

The three companies said they do the best they can. "Our operators try to be as accurate as possible," said spokeswoman Julie Balmer. "Our database is updated on a daily basis. There is a human factor."

Consumer advocates say consumers don't know their options, don't compare prices and aren't aware that accuracy varies.

"The advertising you see on TV is fun-loving stars like Michael Jordan saying, `Hey, give us a call,' " said Jeffrey Kagan, a telecommunications analyst in Atlanta. They "don't compare their accuracy with other services."

* * *

Directory assistance used to be simple. Ma Bell handled everything.

After the breakup of AT&T into regional Bell companies in 1984, local calls for information, usually to 411 or 1-411, were handled by the regional companies. Long distance information calls, to the area code and 555-1212, were handled by the Bell company in that area.

It got more complicated in the mid-1990s. When state regulators and courts forced the Bell companies to sell their listings at a reasonable price, the long distance carriers entered the lucrative market for directory assistance.

In 1997, AT&T rolled out its 10-10-ATT-00 (reached easily by AT&T customers by dialing 00). MCI followed in 1998 with its 10-10-9000 service.

More competition did not lower prices. In Illinois, 411 calls were 55 cents in March 1999. Now they cost 95 cents, a 73 percent increase in just one year.

* * *

Directory assistance depends on a good database, a good operator and good search software.

The database job isn't getting easier, especially because 25 percent of America's phone numbers change annually.

Companies buy some numbers from local Bell companies. But they have to pay per listing and per update, which can cost millions a year. So some companies turn to second-rate vendors that rip the backs off telephone directories and scan the pages into a computer.

They also buy data from credit card companies and mailing lists, which may be outdated. Then there are fax numbers, Internet lines and pagers to deal with.

Tel Trust, a Salt Lake City company that provides directory assistance to major phone companies, says it weeds out 100,000 incorrect numbers a day. Ameritech says it updates information daily. AT&T does it twice a week. MCI wouldn't say.

Even with good data, operators can give out wrong numbers.

Directory assistance is so bad because operators are rewarded more for speed than for accuracy, said Brown, who tests the accuracy of directory services.

Working in sweats and baseball caps at $8,000 workstations, operators field up to 90 calls an hour, or one every 40 seconds. Operators often can double their hourly $6.50 wages by exceeding that pace.

The rushed pace was obvious in the Sun-Times test.

In the test, two out of three times that Ameritech was asked for the chancellor's office at the Archdiocese of Chicago, the operator instead gave the main number. The chancellor's number is listed in Ameritech's directory.

MCI, all three times it was asked for the Illinois Supreme Court, gave the number for the court's Attorney Registration Disciplinary Commission. It was the first number to pop up on the screen, an operator explained.

Although callers are entitled to two listings per call, often the operators ignore the request to give a second listing. As soon as they found the first listing, the operators handed the call off to the computerized voice that reads the first number.

Many phone companies hire outside companies unfamiliar with the region. An MCI operator in North Carolina didn't know how to spell Schaumburg.

It costs more to maintain regional call centers, said Tim Timmens, who heads Metro One in Portland, Ore., which handles calls for AT&T and others.

Metro One has 28 regional call centers, including one in northwest suburban Mount Prospect. AT&T has 10 centers, many outsourced. Ameritech operates in its five-state region. MCI wouldn't say.

Good search software matters, too. At least a dozen different ones are available, some more efficient but expensive.

Sometimes, it's not clear why one operator finds a listing but another does not. Ameritech said its operators need a city name to do a search. However, an Ameritech supervisor said she was able to find Yellowstone National Park without a city name, by searching all of Wyoming. AT&T and MCI operators searched the state, too, but MCI gave an old number for Yellowstone all three times.

* * *

Customers can get refunds, but few bother.

And few people take the time to complain. Although complaints to the FCC have tripled since 1996, they still number an insignificant 100 a year. And the companies don't have to reveal how many refunds they give.

Consumer advocates and telecommunications analysts don't understand why consumers are staying silent. Martin Cohen, who heads the consumer watchdog Citizens Utility Board in Illinois, speculated that most consumers don't know how or that they can. They may not even know that there are competing services.

"Everybody knows that you dial 411 to get information," Cohen said. "That's monopoly right there."

Until consumers get totally fed up, and state commerce commissions regulate the service, he said, "there doesn't seem to be relief in sight."


Where to call with complaints, to receive credits

If you have a specific complaint about a directory assistance service or a general consumer question, call:

* The Citizens Utility Board at its consumer hotline, (800) 669-5556. The Citizens Utility Board is designated by the state to investigate consumer complaints on utilities.

* The Federal Communications Commission at (888) CALL-FCC (888-225-5322).

* * *

If you receive a wrong number, you can call for free to receive a credit:

* For Ameritech, dial (800) 244-4444.

* For AT&T, if you are an AT&T customer, dial "00." If you are not an AT&T customer, dial (800) CALL-ATT (800-225-5288).

* For WorldCom, dial (800) 444-3333. MCI WorldCom customers can also dial "00." You can also dial 10-10-9000.


What you should know

Facts you should really know about directory assistance:

* When a directory assistance operator offers to connect you at no extra charge, it isn't a free call. You are billed a per-minute rate for the long distance or local call. If you used a directory assistance service, such as MCI or AT&T's 00 or 10-10 services and are not a regular customer of that carrier, you will be charged the highest rates for the call, which could be 20 cents a minute.

* The old-fashioned long distance directory (area code plus 555-1212) is the most expensive option. The call is handled by the long distance carrier you have chosen for your telephone service. AT&T charges more for this call ($1.99) than it does for its 10-10-ATT-00 service ($1.49). So does MCI ($1.49 vs. 99 cents). The directory service might not be so accurate, because it is not updated so frequently.

* Each phone company allows you two listings for directory assistance. Make sure to tell the operator first that you want two numbers. A non-published number doesn't count as a listing.

* The telephone directories on the World Wide Web are often less accurate than directory assistance, because they usually come from old printed directories. But they are free.

* Ask for a supervisor, who may have more experience or better search software. This is free.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 19, 2000

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