If you want to start an angry conversation, just bring up the subject of long-distance telephone bills. The companies have all but squandered their public trust.

The attorneys general of eight states have sued AT & T;, Sprint or WorldCom (MCI), charging them with deceptive marketing. The companies deny it. But the country is roaring with what can only be called "phone rage."

"I feel I'm being ripped off by every phone company I deal with," says chef Deborah Yellin of Culinary Productions in Fishkill, N.Y.

A few months ago, Yellin signed up for a 10-cents-a-minute long-distance plan from MCI. Suddenly, her bills started looking high. When she called MCI, she learned that the rate had risen to 15 cents in March. The "notification" was in the small print on one of her phone bills.

"They take advantage of people who don't check every bill," she gripes. "You always have to be on guard."

My associate, Dori Perrucci, just spent two hours trying to figure out which of four long-distance companies would charge her the least. At two of the companies, two different phone reps gave her two different answers.

She says her own carrier, AT & T;, told her she was on its cheapest plan for her calling pattern. It turned out she wasn't.

Personally, I get tons of calls from telephone salespeople, each claiming that their company is the cheapest. But you never get the whole story. They may tout their per-minute rate without mentioning the monthly fee and the fee could make the service more expensive.

To find out about a service's extra costs, like calling-card rates and surcharges, you have to ask specifically. Even the Web sites generally don't disclose such extras as the cost of directory assistance.

Matt Baron, a freelance reporter in Chicago, bought a particular wireless plan from AT & T;, because it didn't require a one-year contract. A few months into the service, he raised the number of minutes on his plan.

Later, when he decided to switch to another company, the AT & T; rep insisted that he did indeed have a contract. He complained to a supervisor. Nevertheless, he was charged $30 for canceling his contract "early."

I called AT & T; headquarters, on Baron's behalf. Spokesman Mark Siegel says the contract started when he increased his minutes, and the rep should have told him. Because the rep didn't, Siegel arranged to credit Baron's account.

That's great, but what about all the people I can't speak for?

From December 1999 through May 2000, most residential customers saw their bills soar, says Samuel Simon, chairman of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

TRAC estimates that users of three WorldCom discount plans paid 26 percent to 46 percent more. Two AT & T; plans were up more than 26 percent. The main reason: higher fees, and rising charges for calling cards and directory assistance.

At the smaller carriers, charges rose more slowly and, in some cases, dropped, TRAC says. For some interesting smaller carriers, check www.saveonphone.com.

At www.trac.org, you can check your own phone usage against the interstate charges at seven phone companies, to see whether a switch makes sense. Or send for a residential price comparison chart, at $7 from TRAC, P.O. Box 27279, Washington, D.C. 20005 (include a business-size self-addressed envelope with 55 cents in postage).

One sore point has always been AT & T;'s "basic" service. It's used by some 28 million people, millions of whom never changed phone companies after the breakup of Ma Bell.

Individually, their bills may be small, so the effort of shopping may not seem worthwhile. Or they may think "basic" means cheap, when it really means "expensive."

AT & T; has been charging these captive customers the highest long-distance rates. Even if they make no calls, they've been paying fees of around $5 a month.

Now, the basic, per-minute rates have risen about 3 cents more to 29.5 cents on weekdays, 22.5 cents on weeknights and 14.5 cents on weekends. (In its letter to customers, AT & T; said merely that rates have been "adjusted.") At the same time, around $4.50 in fees have been lopped out.

If you use AT & T; long distance for less than about 30 minutes a month, basic service is the cheapest deal, Simon says. But basic users who talk more will pay more, unless they do what they've never done before call AT & T; for a cheaper plan.

There are two new lower-cost plans for basic users who make their calls on weekends. But these plans are not itemized on AT & T;'s Web site, for customers to see.

Oh well. Maybe next time.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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