Originally created 11/13/97

The modern phone call a maze



WASHINGTON -- More than a month after they were supposed to be getting real people on the phone, consumers who call credit bureaus still reach out and touch some - thing.

Banks are causing phone frustration, too: Dozens have begun charging a premium for human contact.

Want to call up government and complain? Go ahead. They'll give you options.

Press 1 to lose your mind.

Technology that lets people track their tax returns, shift money between bank accounts and get a ton of information by phone - while saving money for the bureaucracy on the other end - is also exacting a price.

The price is usually more than $1 a call at banks that have begun charging for phone inquiries after several free calls a month.

Consumer advocates see a broader cost, too, not connected to the pocketbook.

"Some of those who are keen on pushing technology lose sight of the human element," says Consumers Union counsel Michelle Meier, longtime advocate of the credit bureau reforms made law last month.

"One should never ignore or deny the benefits of technology, but there's also an overemphasis when human contact is eliminated. You're tilting the balance in a harmful way."

The new Fair Credit Reporting Act has toughened a variety of obligations on credit bureaus and the companies that use them. One requirement, only a small part of the law, is for the bureaus to make trained personnel available by phone during business hours.

It's believed to be the first federal law requiring the option of human contact by phone for consumers.

So where are the folks? None of the three national credit bureaus is yet providing easy or reliable one-call access to an employee, and the Federal Trade Commission, administering the law, has begun hearing complaints.

"We are aware of the fact that some of the bureaus do not yet have a human at the other end of the phone," said Victoria Streitfeld, spokeswoman for the commission. "We are presently beginning to consider what our options are."

Equifax has no provision for human contact for most callers and tells rotary phone users, for example, to write. Experian and Trans Union put callers through a phone menu before they are put on hold for a person.

In spot checks over a month, calls were often lost at that point. The line went dead or callers were told to phone back instead of being put in a queue.

More than 20 midafternoon calls to one Experian consumer line over several days were met by busy signals; two to Trans-Union were eventually answered by a person.

"There should be a live body option," said Norm Magnuson of Associated Credit Bureaus, representing the industry. But the law does not state "there has to be a person you connect to immediately."

At banks, meanwhile, 69 of 419 surveyed this year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group charged customers for making multiple balance inquiries by phone. Average charges for calling bank employees instead of computer banks were two or three times higher.

"With the complicated bank check clearing rules and with banks making so many mistakes with direct deposits and transfers, it's important to call," but potentially costly, said Ed Mierzwinski, the group's consumer director.

Donald G. Ogilvie, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association, says some banks focus on personal service and others on automation.

Critics of some bank fees "would have us return to `cookie-cutter' banking, leaving consumers with fewer options and service," he said in response to Mierzwinski's survey.

Phone frustrations in the private sector are hardly limited to the financial services industry. And in the public sector, many callers end up in "voice-mail jail" as well.

Even at consumer offices of the Federal Trade Commission, callers sometimes need to leave a message with a computer for a person to call back.

A government report two years ago noted with concern that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then with 58 options on its phone menu, put advice columnist Ann Landers on hold for 45 minutes. Its national toll-free line still offers no option for talking to someone.

That report estimated 25 percent of callers to the federal government give up.

Rotary phones are no longer the get-out-of-jail card they used to be. Unable to punch in tones to trigger computer responses, rotary users have been given the option of waiting on line for an operator. But increasingly, they are being asked to speak to computers now capable of responding to their voice commands.

A campaign to improve government service has produced uneven results, according to a survey of 150 agencies this year.

The Social Security Administration was found to be answering almost all calls within five minutes - and it got 1.7 million calls one January day. Two in five callers to the patent office did not get promptly directed to the right person.

Recent calls to government main numbers found more spottiness.

The effort to improve government efficiency, including phone service, is overseen by the National Performance Review, a special project of Vice President Al Gore.

How's it going over there? Hard to say.

"Unfortunately," says the office recording, "nobody is available to take your call right now."