Parsing the fees on phone bills

One of the challenges of modern life is to understand the phone bill. Busy people don't try. They just look at the first of seven pages, where it says "total amount due," and write a check.

But that's what has given an opening to scam artists that cram your phone bill with things you did not realize you had ordered. And unless you comb through the entire bill line by line, you'll never know if you've been crammed.

So let's check the bill. It starts with $2.20 for extended area calling and adds $25.99 for the basic service plus a bundle of options, for a total of $28.19. So far so good.

Then we come to the taxes: Federal excise tax of 3 percent. Franchise tax at 1 percent. State 911 charge at 75 cents per line. Federal universal service fund at 10.2 percent. And we're not done yet.

Oregon universal service surcharge of 7.12 percent. The Oregon PUC fee of 13 cents a line. The residential service protection fund fee at 5 cents a line. And finally, the federal access charge of $6.50.

All that totals $10.62, bringing your bill to $38.81, of which more than one-fourth is taxes and government fees.

Farther back in the bill, you discover a flat price of $20 for long distance. But it's not flat because it too is encumbered with fees — the PUC fee, the federal universal service fund again, the federal telecommunications relay and administration fee, and the Oregon universal service fund, all of which turn your flat $20 charge into $22.10.

But that amount doesn't just get added to the previous total. First a mysterious $5.55 is deducted because of Qwest long-distance savings and adjustments. Let's hear it for savings and adjustments! In this case they reduce the total service package to $16.55.

Now that's the amount to add to the charge for your phone line. And that's how you end up with a phone bill of $55.36.

The only thing left to think about: The total includes $12.72 of local, state and federal taxes, the local ones being the tiniest amount, a mere 14 cents.

Taxes amount to 23 percent of the total bill. Keep it in mind when you make a call. Also keep it in mind the next time discussion turns to a general sales tax. Even at 5 or 6 percent, it would be less than the tax rate we pay on our phones.

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