Simon Calder: Let's talk telephone numbers

The Man Who Pays His Way
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The Independent Travel

Julio and I have not seen eye to eye this week. Indeed, we have only had a couple of phone conversations, both of them brief by Julio's standards. Should you wish to call him at his home in the Portuguese city of Porto, his number is 00 351 96 709 5785. I know this because it appears on my mobile phone statement, along with a list of 28 other calls that I did not make one night in November. Each time I rang Julio to try to find out who had called him on my stolen mobile that night, all he would say was, "I have many friends, and they all call me".

It is never pleasant to be robbed, but when set upon in Lisbon last month I was pleasantly surprised to be relieved only of my mobile phone. Until the bill came in. Now I know why people use the phrase "talking telephone numbers" in the context of large sums of money.

In the hours before I could report the telephonic theft, the muggers enjoyed an impressive £200-worth of conversation at my expense. Even after I notified the company, Orange, three more calls were made. One, to Julio's number, lasted a full two hours and cost me a further £72.

Beware: being parted from your mobile phone abroad is akin to losing a bottomless wallet. You are responsible for any calls made until you report the theft to the telephone company, however difficult it may be to do so and no matter how useless the police.

"Once a customer has notified Orange, from that point onwards you would not be expected to pay for calls made on that phone fraudulently," says a spokesman for the company. But you may have to argue your case. Even after you tell the company of the loss, the block on the line may not come into effect for up to 24 hours, during which the villains could ring up another £800 of chat on your phone bill.

Eventually, Orange agreed to refund the cost of the three calls made after I reported the theft, and knocked £50 off the remaining bill as a "goodwill gesture", reducing the company's earnings on that night to £150.

One silver lining to the sorry saga: I now know that even a local call made from an Orange mobile in Europe costs 60p a minute. All the more reason to leave it at home next time.

The telephone company, I speculated, might care to follow up some of the calls made at my expense. After all, they know and I know all the numbers dialled, and when the calls were made. "If the police wanted to start an investigation, we would co-operate," says the man for Orange. When I visited them at the nick, Lisbon's finest were about as interested in the theft as they might be in, say, the half-time score in this afternoon's non-league relegation thriller between Hednesford Town and Crawley Town. So I judge it unlikely that they will assemble a crack team of detectives to put the feelers on Julio and his talkative chums.

¿ Supporting Queen's Park Rangers can be an expensive pursuit if you follow the team by telephone. Christian Wolmar, the transport writer, is so devoted to the Division Two team that he phones friends from abroad to ask how dismally the team are doing.

He has just returned from another noble enterprise: taking a short break to Manhattan, giving support to New York City. But the two worthy causes do not mix, as he discovered when he placed a call from his room at the Hotel Plaza-Athénée to his pal at the ground to get the final score.

"I was charged a staggering $122 [£84] for a four-minute phone call to a mobile in the UK. The rate is, we were told, twice the operator-connected call rate. But even that seemed rather high." At £21 a minute, I think "rather" is rather an understatement.

Fortunately, he had more luck than I did when it came to querying the bill: "When we quibbled it, we were let off. I think the receptionist felt we were being cheated." After all that, the call had only brought the sad news that QPR had lost yet again.

¿ How widespread is overcharging for calls among American hotels? On someone else's mobile, I made some enquiries. At the Westin Hotel in Oklahoma City, the charges are, as the locals are prone to say, awesome.

Every international call that you dial direct is billed as though going through the operator, at peak rate, even if you dial direct off-peak. This already inflated figure is increased by an absurd 230 per cent, with a surcharge of $4.50 just for luck – and state sales tax of 9 per cent on top of everything. The method used by some British hotels to calculate call charges is to think of a fair figure and treble it; in the US, it appears that they think of an unfair figure and treble that.

¿ A seasonal reminder from Christine Campbell to be nice to airline staff over Christmas. "Travelling on British Airways on 25 December, I gave the flight attendants a box of chocolates. A few minutes later, I was moved up to business class with apologies that there were no first-class seats available."