Moms

To save money, sometimes all you have to do is ask

Play me for a sucker -- again.

At least, that's what AT&T did. Or maybe I should blame myself.

I preach about the need to call utilities and ask a bunch of questions to get lower rates. So last week, I was investigating how to cut my long-distance bill from 7 cents a minute to a lot less.

When I inquired, AT&T told me I could have free long distance. All I had to do was ask.

If I were one of the Three Stooges, this is where Moe would slap me on the head.

Now gifted with free long distance, which I probably could have gotten years ago if only I had asked, I then wondered about the necessity of keeping my metro line. Remember the metro line?

When I moved here 17 years ago, if you wanted to call Dallas, Plano and all points east and not worry about racking up message units -- remember them, too? -- you got a metro line. The official name is the Extended Metropolitan Service plan. For a fixed rate, you could call all over town.

This plan is still available, but guess what? When you can get free long distance and local calling through other AT&T fixed-rate plans, only saps still pay for their metro lines.

Until last week, count me among that group. (I switched but got to keep my number.)

AT&T spokeswoman Meredith Adams says metro lines "are still being used by a number of AT&T residential and business customers."

Remember, utilities never call you and offer you better deals. You have to call them. They switch their plans and rates often. When you ask, most times, it pays off.

Ban fine print

From now on, I'm just going to skip to the fine print at the bottom of any offer. Or when listening to a radio commercial, I'll listen only to the part at the end when the announcer talks really fast and gives you all the information the government makes him say.

AAA offered a bonus membership for a family member. I wanted to give it to my older son. So I sent in the application, but it was rejected. Somehow, I missed the tiny print at the bottom, about one-third the size of the font used in the rest of the letter, that states:

"Please note that there is a limit of one Adult Associate membership per household."

Would it have hurt to put that in the body of the letter in the same-size print as everything else? We can never be an upfront nation until we declare all forms of fine print illegal.

Hidden charges

Robin Williams of Fort Worth pays attention to fine print. A Reliant Energy telemarketer called and promised that if he signed with Reliant, he'd get a low rate of 8 cents per kilowatt-hour and a $100 gift card.

He asked questions and learned that with added charges, the actual rate is 10.4 cents.

"I believe this to be deceptive advertising," he told me. "How many people have they talked into switching who may not have lowered their rate because they did not know what questions to ask?"

After I informed Reliant, spokeswoman Pat Hammond told me that officials listened to a tape of Williams' phone call "and it did not follow our established process. Our scripting calls for the agent to review both the energy charge and the average price early in the conversation. In this case, the average price was not discussed until the customer asked about additional charges."

She added, "We have brought this example to the attention of all of our sales agents to reiterate the proper way to describe the price of the plan."

Changing rates

Frank Wingard has a beef with TXU Energy's marketing campaign. The Fort Worth man says he hates listening to commercials and seeing billboards that promise TXU has "no variable-rate plans."

He points out that TXU's MarketEdge plan is based on the changing price of natural gas. TXU says on its website that the plan involves a "monthly fluctuating price" of natural gas.

To Wingard, fluctuating is the same as variable.

I checked it out. According to the Texas Public Utility Commission, a variable rate is one "for which price may vary according to a method determined by" an electric company.

With MarketEdge, the price is decided not by TXU, but by gas prices on the open market.

TXU spokeswoman Sophia Stoller says, "The reason it's not a variable plan is we offer a formula in advance, so he's able to calculate it in advance."

My point here is that language is so important. To you or me, fluctuating and variable are close enough. Close enough to confuse customers who don't understand.

Kids triumph

Do you remember The Watchdog story in June about Haltom City middle school students who wrote a book together and got scammed? Their teacher, parents and school staffers invested more than $2,000 to print their book, Locker Letters.

An Indiana printer took the money but never delivered the book.

When a police detective visited the address listed for the printing house, a man in a bathrobe answered the door of a trailer home.

Good news: The students' book is now available in area bookstores, at North Oaks Middle School and at www.LockerLetters.com.

Other area folks, including The Watchdog, helped the kids, who are part of Birdville's new Rising Authors Program, publish the book. Last month, there was a debut party at Borders in Colleyville. The next student book-signing is 2-4 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble near North East Mall in Hurst.

Congrats to the 16 student authors. Note to all Bad Guys: There has to be a line you must never cross, and that line is scamming children.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber

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