Reach Out and Really Touch Someone

Late last year thousands of people learned that the "free" calls they'd been making to Cuba weren't really free. Now the bills are arriving.

According to Waldrop, when Dial & Save began fielding calls from confused customers in late November, news of the rumor already had appeared on the Telemundo network as well as in El Nuevo Herald. Waldrop says the company felt satisfied the misunderstanding had been addressed and saw no need to take out further advertising in Miami's Spanish-language media.

Instead, Dial & Save hired 23 new Spanish-speaking representatives to handle billing questions from Miami. Waldrop says the company is willing to issue "inconvenience credits" to everyone who agrees to pay their bill. Rather than $1.85 per minute, bills would be adjusted to reflect charges of $1.49 per minute. (By comparison, other American companies bill anywhere from 84 cents to $1.48 per minute, depending on time of day and week. Toronto Communications, a Canadian company that advertises in El Nuevo Herald, charges a flat rate of 75 cents per minute.) As of last week, Waldrop reports, Dial & Save had issued 3000 credits. "There's no reason that we would remotely be interested in trying to cause harm to anyone in any way, shape, or form," Waldrop concludes. "If what we were doing was fraudulent, the FCC would be down on us in a heartbeat."

A spokesman at the FCC's Washington, D.C., headquarters confirms that he is aware of the situation but won't specify what, if any, steps the agency intends to take. One issue the FCC might look into is how Dial & Save was able to complete calls several weeks before any of the primary carriers formally initiated service. Company president Don Burns refuses to reveal which firm or firms carried the Cuba calls. Out of the six that were authorized by the FCC, only LDDS admits having had technical capacity prior to November 25. Mark Welton, vice president of marketing for the Mississippi-based company, confirms that Dial & Save is a customer, but says LDDS doesn't carry Dial & Save's Cuba calls. "They told us they were going through Toronto," he observes.

If so, Troy Tanner, an FCC attorney, says Dial & Save may have broken U.S. law. "We have not authorized them to do that, so if they did, it would be illegal."

Florida Public Service Commissioner Joe Garcia, himself a Cuban American living in Miami, requested that his staff investigate Dial & Save but was told international calls originating in Florida fall outside his commission's jurisdiction.

Southern Bell, meanwhile, has advised its customers to be sure to pay local charges while they wait to negotiate payment arrangements on the Dial & Save calls. This week the company also set up a special hotline (780-2155) for information pertaining to the source of the rumor. "What really pains us is that we're in the middle of this," says Bell spokesman Gustavo Alfonso. "We have been trying to figure out a basis for what happened in November and we have not gotten anywhere.

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