Why Does A 10-Second Collect Call Cost $37.66?

When a Michigan man’s traveling parents called him collect from a payphone a couple hours away, he expected to see a couple bucks on his next bill for the call he says was anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds in duration. But he definitely wasn’t expecting to be hit with a charge for $37.66.

So he called the company listed on his phone bill, and then was directed to a second company. He was initially offered a 30% discount on the bill. He refused, and a few calls later they were offering him 60% off. But he still feels that more than $15 is too much to pay for such a short call.

A rep for the company tells AnnArbor.com that payphone service providers have had to raise their rates over the last decade as more people use cellphones. The number of payphones operating in the U.S. dropped a reported 80% between 2000 and 2010.

“One collect call that’s accepted from that pay phone can be the difference of that pay phone being there next month or not,” explained the rep, who adds that another reason for high charges is they also have to pay the phone service provider, the billing company and the local carrier who slaps the charge on your bill.

The rep says his company often gives discounts to those who are shocked when they see how much that collect call costs, but that they will then likely add that number to a list of people blocked from receiving collect calls in the future.

Ten-second call racks up $37.66 charge on Ann Arbor man’s phone bill [AnnArbor.com]

Thanks to Thunder for the tip!


Edit Your Comment

  1. Hi_Hello says:

    it’s not just the time the call lasted. 10 sec is consider a 1 min by most places.
    plus there is connection charge.

    i don’t own and operate a pay phone so I don’t know what’s the fair price.

    • LanMan04 says:

      Minute-rounding is really egregious.

      I work at a telecom company that provides hundreds of millions of minutes of voice-call hosting per month, and almost ALL of our contracts have 6-second rounding (up). So essentially 10ths of a minute. A VERY few contracts have 6-second rounding with an 18-second minimum.

      Rounding up to the nearest minute? That’s reserved for sucker consumers. A business would never stand for that.

    • maxamus2 says:

      So, $37.66 is justified for a one minute call?

  2. TuxMan says:

    What it’s not free?

    • Jawaka says:

      So the customer just pays what they want for the service?

      Great policy.

      • Blueskylaw says:

        So if your car ran out of gas and you went to the station where they charged you $37.66 a gallon (you didn’t look at cost because you roughly know what it should cost), you would be OK with that?

        • crispyduck13 says:

          I honestly didn’t know there was a figure of what a collect call “should” cost. Just because this guy thought it should cost X, doesn’t make it a defendable argument.

          • JJFIII says:

            Actually, since there was no was no “meeting of the minds:, which is a requirement for ALL contracts, there is no agreement to pay whatever they want. What if they charged a $1,000,000,000,000,000,000.00. Unless they SPECIFICALLY agree to that price, there was no contract. Therefore a judge would be required to make the company whole again. Which of course would be what it cost them to actually perform the service. A COMPANY has a duty to do this far more than a consumer based on the law.

        • Jawaka says:

          The only thing that I feel that really needs to change in this is that the customer needs to be better informed up front what the cost of the call will be. Other than that I think that the phone companies (and every other company for that matter) should be able to charge whatever they want for their services.

  3. AtlantaCPA says:

    This post is from some alternate universe. Payphones? Collect Calls? You can get the bill lowered but then they’ll cut you off forever from getting collect calls, OH NOES!

    • MaxH42 thinks RecordStoreToughGuy got a raw deal says:

      How can I get myself on that list? The only collect calls I receive are from prison or from family. Or family in prison.

  4. xl22k says:

    My collect calls to my parents after high school baseball practice:

    Operator: You have a collect call from “Say no and come pick me up.” Do you accept the charges?
    Dad: No. /click

    • Hi_Hello says:

      do operator really just repeat that they hear??

      all these time, I didn’t need to develop a collect call method 0-o.

      • FatLynn says:

        It’s a brief recording of your voice.

      • flyingember says:

        the question to ask is if operators really pick up the phone?

        it’s a recording

        • Hi_Hello says:


          • kc2idf says:

            From the perspective of the caller, you get an automated voice saying “state your name after the tone” followed by a beep. You say your name. When the line is silent again, it says “thank you”.

            The call gets placed to the person you are calling. You can hear them, but they can’t hear you. Again, the automated voice comes on and says, “You have a collect call from:” and it then plays the recording it made of you allegedly saying your name. It then continues, “Do you accept the charges?” or maybe it will be more like “Press 1 to accept the charges” or something the like.

            If they hit 1, or say yes, or whatever, then your end is unmuted, and the meter starts.

            Now, one observation here . . . back in the day, I would have expected to pay a premium for a collect call, maybe 50 cents/min, but one could also end the call and call back. That said, I don’t ever remember a recorded announcement advising the called party on what the price is going to be.

            If the called party in this case was never told the price before accepting, then he is perfectly within his rights to balk.

    • YouDidWhatNow? says:

      We used to do that in high school, when there was a practice or some other function we had to stay after school for, but weren’t sure how long it’d last.

      Call home collect when you’re ready to be picked up – mom/dad know not to accept the call…just that you need to get picked up.

      No need to use the line above – just give your name, or a fake name if you want, and just have everybody in the loop on the deal.

      Naturally…essentially a lost cause these days with cell phones. But…back in the day, it worked.

    • milkcake says:

      I was about to say that. Haha 10sec call could have been 2 unpaid collect calls.

    • notovny says:

      I used to give my name as “N. Call [Phone number of pay phone]” to the recorded message, and my parents would decline the collect call, then immediately call back.

      • A.Mercer says:

        Depends on the pay phone. Some have the ringers turned off. I was told this was done to prevent drug dealers from using them as their work phones. I worked at a pizza place and there was a guy there who was a little nuts. The kind of nuts I strive to be. He got the phone number off of a pay phone across the street. He then programmed it into the fast dial on the work phone. If he ever saw someone getting out of their car and walking towards the pay phone he would quickly call that pay phone. The people could not hear it ringing and were actually answering his call when they picked up the phone. The wild and various pranks he would pull on these people. He would pretend to be an operator and tell them that they had to deposit $1 in nickels and nickels only on this phone. If they put anything in there he would tell them that it was not working. Sometimes he would pretend that he was a drug dealer and that the person has accidentally walked into a drug deal that is now going bad. Sometimes he would just repeat back everything they say. And of course we are all watching the people across the street. I am sure he was probably breaking a few laws but when I was 17 it was hilarious.

        • Buckus says:

          Thanks for the laugh.

        • BorkBorkBork says:

          When I was in middle school, someone figured out a payphone hack that would make the phone ring nonstop until someone answered it (after which . They’d do it to the phone outside the main office to piss off the administration.

          Good times

          • Kahlidan says:

            I used to do that also.. wasn’t that the 576 trick? For some reason, if you dialed 576 or 976 and the last 4 digits of the payphone, then quickly pressed and released the hook, the phone would emit some sort of test signal from the earpiece. When you hung up, it would ring endlessly. I think it was some sort of test the technicians did to verify it worked.

            • Fafaflunkie Plays His World's Smallest Violin For You says:

              Around here, back in the day when you still dialed 7-digit local numbers, you would dial 999-(phone number you’re dialing from.) You hear a few short tones, then a “fast-busy.” Hang up, and the phone starts ringing until you picked up the receiver, “flashed” it, then hung up. Good times when you were at a friend’s party and wanted to fuck said friend’s mind up.

            • akronharry says:

              Here in Northeast Ohio, we would dial 551, wait for dial tone, and then dial 6. You would hang up and the phone would ring until someone answered. Fun times in the late 60-s and early 70’s.
              Also miss We1-1212 for weather and Gr1-1212 for the time to set your clocks. Nice and simple.

        • Blueskylaw says:

          When I was in college, they would lock the doors to the dorms after a certain time and if you wanted to reach someone in a dorm room you had to dial their room number on the call box. Well, we found out that you could actually call local numbers from the box and we were able to get the “telephone number” of the box and when we saw people walking towards the box we would call it up and be able to talk through the loudspeaker. If we saw a good looking woman walking by it was like, hey, wanna come to my room. Yes, you, with the jeans and white sneakers on. We would be staring at her through our dorm window in another building while she looked around trying to figure out what was going on. You don’t even want to know the things we did with that box after a Friday night of drinking.

      • Fafaflunkie Plays His World's Smallest Violin For You says:

        That certainly wouldn’t work around here, as Bell got wise to that many moons ago:

        Caller on payphone hears “who should I say who is calling?”
        “Say no call (pay phone #)”
        *person called phone rings*
        “You have a collect call from ‘Say no call (pay phone #.)’ Will you accept the charges?”
        Called party: “No.” (hangs up, dials the pay phone #)
        then hears “The number you have dialed does not accept incoming calls.”

        In other words, too bad.

    • TheBigWhiteWolf says:

      Collect call from Mr. Bob Wehadababyitsaboy…


  5. Blueskylaw says:

    “but that they will then likely add that number to a list of people blocked from receiving collect calls in the future.”

    Thereby sealing their final fate.

  6. Bsamm09 says:

    Everything the rep says makes sense. I haven’t seen a payphone in a long time. It must be expensive to keep the few around in service. You’d probably lose any profit just having someone collect the money out of it if you did it too much.

    • flyingember says:

      I see more places they removed a payphone than payphones.

      even in areas with poor cell coverage

      • Firethorn says:

        Areas with poor cell coverage might only have poor coverage for 1 carrier, or people just shop for phones known to have ‘strong radios’. I know I tend to and it’s paid off – I’ll have 3 bars while others are showing ‘no connection’.

    • bdgbill says:

      I work with a couple of nationwide convenience store companies. There is a long waiting list of locations waiting to get their phones removed. Just figuring out who owns these things can be a nightmare. It won’t be long before they are all gone.

    • huadpe says:

      Depends where the payphones are. The ones on NYC sidewalks are highly profitable, not from phone operations, but from selling ad space on the sides.

      Payphones in medium/low traffic areas are dying and soon to be dead.

  7. highfructosepornsyrup says:

    I haven’t made nor received a collect call in… well… ever… but shouldn’t you have to agree to what the charges are before accepting a collect call?

    “This call will be charged at 1 bazillion dollars per minute. Do you want to accept this call?” or something?

    Seems wierd to have a system where you agree in advance to unspecified charges at the discretion of the biller…

    • Kitamura says:

      IIRC the last time I got a collect call the operator just said something like will you accept a collect call from person name, no mention of charges or anything.

      • balthisar says:

        One can ask. Many, many years ago my parents rejected a collect call from me, because they always asked for the rates. Eventually I wised-up and got to know the calling code for AT&T (free call on my end, cheap collect calls on their end).

  8. Shorebreak says:

    Payphones are operated to scam the very poor or people stuck in an emergency situation without a mobile phone. It’s just another form of pay day loan schemes or Wall Street shenanigans to prey upon the weak or under represented.

    • chefboyardee says:

      They’re also used by 12 year old boys, who call 1-800 sex lines outside their apartment compex pool while they stand there and giggle until they hit the paywall.

    • AustinTXProgrammer says:

      These days, but they used to serve a broader purpose.

  9. Bob says:

    One piece of info is missing from this story. Did it say anywhere on the payphone what the charges are for collect calls? Were the parents making the collect call ever told of the rate ahead of time before letting the call go through? You can’t just bill someone willy nilly after the fact. That’s like Nancy Pelosi saying we have to let them pass the healthcare law and only after the fact can we then find out what exactly the bill is. (See what I did there?)

    • Portlandia says:

      That’s the problem, it’s virtually impossible to talk to an operator and when you do you can’t always get them to quote you a price.

      Case in point, I was in Croatia arrived late and my cell phone would not work in that country. I found a phone booth but they only accept phonecards no coins. I see a sticker for collect or visa calls via an international operator. I dial, talk to an English speaking operator and they ask for visa and phone number I want to call. I give them the number but ask how much before I give them the visa. Operator says, I can’t tell you until I have your visa. I refuse to give my visa until I have a price, this goes around in circles 2-3 times and with different operators as I call back. FINALLY, I get an honest one who tells me it will be $20/minute to make a call within croatia (this isn’t international, just to call the apartment owner to let me in). FUCK THAT. It’s all a scam, charge you as much as possible for your call.

      I end up getting a kind stranger to call this owner for me on their mobile. I give them a couple euros for helping me out.

    • RandomHookup says:

      That’s the joy of the scam. The caller doesn’t usually see any posted charges and the recipient doesn’t know what accepting the call will cost at all. That’s why these companies that charge outrageous rates are doing themselves a disservice. No one will ever use you if you don’t have at least minimally acceptable rates.

  10. bwcbwc says:

    Maybe the payphone was in a prison?

    • gman863 says:


      Over a decade ago, I ended up accepting a collect call from a friend who had been tossed in jail for DUI. It was about a three minute local call; the cost was over $10 in 1990’s dollars.

    • nugatory says:

      I really really hate that.

      I used to get calls all the time from the local prison (until I changed that line to be my fax line). They would even impersonate a police officer while trying to get me to do what ever.

      When I reported it, no one cared. Saying it happens all the time. They don’t care about a prison inmate impersonating a police officer, WTF?

  11. mbd says:

    I have never accepted collect calls, so I have never had this problem. Even before the age of cell phones, my attitude is/was that if the caller wanted to talk to me, they could pay for the call.

  12. Tim says:

    If you really need to use a payphone, use a calling card.

    • Emperor Norton I says:

      That’s why I always have one in my wallet for emergencies.
      Not every place has cell service, even in this country.

      • George4478 says:

        That’s an interesting thought. I haven’t looked at these cards in years. Do you use a specific one that’s good for long-term wallet storage (i.e. won’t eat up the value of the card in fees over time?)

    • kobresia says:

      Precisely, using a known-quantity rate to call others solves the problem, and calling cards are so inexpensive by comparison.

      It is a good idea to check the balance on the card occasionally. Some of the shadier calling card companies start charging fees a few months after the card is first used, causing it to be depleted rather quickly even if not used.

  13. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    …most people probably assume that a “collect call” from a pay phone will cost what it would have if they’d had the change to make the call in the first place, plus some *nominal* convenience fee.

    Like sending a package COD via the mail. Key word being “nominal.”

    Obviously it doesn’t work that way. And sorry, pay phone companies…if you’re trying to make enough money off one collect call a month to keep that phone in that location…we’d prefer that you let it go.

    Haven’t looked at one in a while, but I’d thought that pay phones had rates for various things listed on them. Maybe, for the ~42 people left in the world that use pay phones, there should be a label on the phone showing a typical collect call price if there isn’t already.

  14. scoutermac says:

    This is probably to keep people from calling saying. The pay phone number is: XXX-XXX-XXXX. Call me back.

    • Nidoking says:

      Highly counterintuitive, since there’s no charge for doing that. The charge is only if you accept the call, so you’d think they’d want more people to accept the charges. You get more acceptance if you charge lower rates.

  15. Outrun1986 says:

    Provided you were in a situation where there were people around, couldn’t you just ask someone to borrow their cell phone? Most people have unlimited plans or have plans that allow for a lot more than they use, especially for voice minutes, so I don’t see how you would have a problem doing this, especially if the phone’s owner is sitting right next to you, or you could even have them type the number if they were suspicious. Worst case scenario is you could offer them a couple bucks for letting you use the phone, saving yourself from this situation.

    • crispyduck13 says:

      I would never allow a stranger to borrow my phone. I think many people are like that, so this is not a good strategy. You’re also assuming the need for a phone only comes up when surrounded by other people.

      • Blueskylaw says:

        I was in a parking lot once and a stranger asked to borrow my phone because his car had died. I asked him what number he wanted to call and then I dialed the number before handing the phone to him.

      • jeb says:

        Heck, I’ve let a guy use my cell phone’s data package before to buy a Megabus ticket. We were both trying to get in on standby, but he needed to buy a ticket simply to be eligible for standby.

        Granted, I was standing there the entire time, but I figured that it’s the friendly thing to do, especially since there’s no incremental cost on my end for the extra data.

  16. StatusfriedCrustomer says:

    Unlimited collect calls, $37.66 per month!*

    * or partial month

  17. crispyduck13 says:

    “Kirk Westphal’s parents aren’t so good at keeping a cell phone handy. They’re prone to misplacing it or not having it charged when they need it, he said.”

    Then maybe they shouldn’t be driving a car from New York to Michigan by themselves either. Seriously, take your 60% discount, get your parents a Jitterbug that stays plugged into the charger in the car at all times, or get them a box full of quarters to keep in the trunk and consider it a lesson learned.

    Hard to believe this is news.

  18. zantafio says:

    I made a phone call from a pay phone inside the Magic Kingdom, it was not a collect call but a call I paid wit my credit card. Like the OP it was less than a minute and my credit card was charged nearly $30.

    • spartan says:

      well, from the magic Kingdom to reality is a really, really, really long distance call.

  19. kobresia says:

    Because, fuck you, that’s why.

    Also, because they know they can get away with it, since you’re basically writing them a blank check by agreeing to charges without knowing precisely what they are.

    The rep is also pretty spot-on that the payphone has to earn its keep. One of the tiny local post offices lost the payphone just out in front because it just wasn’t being used enough to cover its costs, so now it’s just not there in case there is an emergency and someone might need to use it.

  20. joe h says:

    For 25 dollars they could have bought a prepaid cell phone, had a decent conversation, then threw the damn thing away.

    • Outrun1986 says:

      You can get them for less than that around here, some stores have $10 tracfones now, however the problem is that you need to activate the phone and I think you need a computer for that.

    • cosby says:

      That was my thought as well. A prepaid phone costs less then that collect phone call.

  21. prag2 says:

    I wonder if I can just call and put myself to the block-list for receiving collect calls.

  22. Harry Greek says:

    ,… there are tons of alternative cheaper numbers to dial, to call collect. I don’t remember the commercials, but we were all bombarded with them in the early 2000s.

    Just pay it and know better next time.

  23. Joseph S Ragman says:

    Came home from work one day. Answering machine had a message, “This is OAN with a collect call from ‘George.’ Press ‘1’ to accept this call.” Three months later, I receive my phone bill, with an additional page from Operator Assistance Network for $11. I called them and told them to remove the charge, and they offered to cut the bill down to $7. I told them to go pound sand. Never heard from them again. Called my telco and told them to block collect and 900 service from my line, and haven’t had that problem since.

  24. B says:

    “A rep for the company tells AnnArbor.com that payphone service providers have had to raise their rates over the last decade as more people use cellphones”
    How to recognize a legal monopoly or dying business. They actually raise prices when confronted with decreased demand for the goods or services they provide.

  25. podunkboy says:

    Even the homeless people in my neighborhood have cell phones, and the only pay telephone I know of close by is always out of order at the convenience store. I’d walk the 10 blocks home before using that phone.

  26. abberz3589 says:

    Can’t find the link bc I’m on my phone but there was a fairly detailed report (I think BBC did it) where the birdwatchers described exactly whom they told about the incident and their reactions.

  27. Scooby111 says:

    If he wasn’t informed of the price beforehand, he didn’t agree to it and he shouldn’t pay more that what would be considered reasonable.

  28. Press1forDialTone says:

    Let’s finish off these aholes by just NEVER using one of these
    pay phones ever. Then the 80% becomes 100% and they can’t sustain
    the business. The pay phone is SOOOOOO over the second average
    people could afford a cell phone and now even the poor can afford them.
    Stick a fork in those turkeys, they’re done.

  29. shelman23 says:

    I used to say, ComeGetMeI’mAtSchool.
    Dad would show up. They seemed to have gotten wise around 1998 though, Couldn’t get away with it after that. Damn had to actually pay!