Some Verizon customers are getting a surprise in their bills this month -- a fee for service they don't use.
The Buffalo region's dominant telephone company has begun charging a "shortfall" fee of up to $2 for certain long-distance customers, company spokeswoman Heather Wilner confirmed.
The fee is charged to phone users who have access to Verizon's basic long-distance service, but who use it very little. If their toll calls come to less than $2 in a month, the shortfall makes up the difference.
"This only affects customers who don't sign up for a long-distance plan," Wilner said.
The idea behind the shortfall fee is to cover the company's cost of making the long-distance network available, she said. Customers were notified of the fee in a bill insert in February.
But the new cost is generating some backlash.
Sherry Thie of Buffalo said she didn't see the notice, and wouldn't have seen the $2 charge either, if a family member hadn't called it to her attention. Her phone bill runs about $45 a month, not counting Internet costs.
"I don't even make any long-distance calls," she said. "For what I pay in cell phone [charges] every month, maybe it's time to think about just going with that."
She said that the $2 charge would add up over the course of a year.
Most customers have a long-distance rate plan, avoiding the shortfall fee, Wilner said, adding that she didn't know how many still use basic long-distance. The shortfall fee was applied throughout Verizon's national footprint, Wilner said.
The griping has gone national as well.
"I really think this is a rip off," Don Pippin of Fort Wayne, Ind., said on a Web site for consumer issues.
"I e-mailed them and told them that if I went to Kroger's and didn't buy any milk they would not charge me a shortfall charge for not buying any milk."
Shortfall fees aren't unusual for phone service, and they aren't unique to Verizon, a consumer advocacy group said.
"AT&T has them; Qwest has them," said John Breyault, research associate at the Telecommunications Research and Action Center in New York City.
Worse than the monthly fee is the fact that such "basic" per-minute rate plans are even more expense if you do make long-distance calls.
"The [basic] long-distance rate plan is one of the most expensive you can be on," he said.
Verizon charges 40 cents a minute for long-distance calls in the U.S. under the basic plan, Wilner said.
One solution is to shop for a rate plan that, while it carries some monthly fee, also offers low per-minute charges, Breyault said. Verizon customers can use the carrier's long-distance plans, or select service from another long-distance provider.
Alternatively, telephone users can tell Verizon to cancel their long-distance service entirely, he said, without choosing another long-distance provider. This is increasingly an option for people who use a cell phone or a calling card for long-distance.
Basic toll service is the default option for people who may not have changed their phone service since the Ma Bell days, Breyault said. That means the shortfall fees often hit elderly consumers, who are less likely to make changes in their service.
More advice on selecting a long-distance provider is available at www.trac.org.
Information on Verizon's long-distance plans can be found at www22.verizon.com/Residential/Phone.