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Telephone Tips

Lifeline

Lifeline is a federal government benefit that provides eligible low-income consumers a monthly discount on their phone or internet bill. The benefit can be used for voice (telephone), Broadband internet Access Service (or BIAS, usually called internet service), or a combined telephone/internet service product from a landline or wireless provider. The program provides a $7.25 per household, per month discount on landline or wireless voice service and a $9.25 per household, per month discount on your wireless or landline internet service. The discount appears in the form of a reduction on the service provider’s bill. A service provider may also offer you the minimum Lifeline Program with no additional charges. The rules and amounts of support can change over time.

A consumer qualifies for Lifeline if they are at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or participate in specific federal programs, including: Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Veterans’ Pension and Survivor Benefit, Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Stay Connected with Lifeline - A brochure explaining telephone assistance programs.

Lifeline Across America Website - The FCC website that provides information and resources regarding federal and state Lifeline programs.

Wireless Lifeline Providers - A chart that lists the wireless telephone companies that provide Lifeline discounts in Pennsylvania through the federal Lifeline program. The chart describes and highlights each wireless company's service plan options.

Landline Lifeline Providers - This list contains company phone numbers and web addresses for the companies, and the counties served. 

Lifeline Providers by County - This list shows all of the providers in each county.

Customer Participation - Lifeline and Link-Up information for all participating telephone companies in 2018 and 2019.

More information on the federal government’s suspension of their Lifeline requirements is available at the USAC website.

Assistance Programs to Get (or Stay) Connected

Telephone and broadband assistance programs are available for consumers with limited incomes. Programs are available to help keep telephone and broadband service connected, reduce monthly phone bills, help pay connection fees and avoid shutoffs. Eligibility is determined based on your income or participation in other assistance programs. Remember, when you are seeking assistance, each telephone company and/or program has different benefits and different restrictions. Some programs have restrictions on the optional services available to participants. Please contact your local telephone company if you wish to participate in any of the telephone and broadband assistance programs.

Check Your Charges for Accessing the Internet

If you have a computer and access the Internet through your telephone line, make sure that the telephone number connecting you to the Internet is a local exchange number. If not, you may be charged for a toll call. These charges can become quite high if you are not aware of the problem. To make sure you are using a local exchange, check your telephone book or contact your local telephone company. If you find that your connection number is not a local exchange, contact your Internet provider and request a local exchange number. Your Internet provider may have provided you with a second telephone number to connect to the Internet. This number would be used if the first number is busy. Make sure that the second number is also a local exchange number.

Slamming and Cramming

What is Cramming?
Cramming is the illegal practice of placing unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on your telephone bill.

What is Slamming?
Slamming is the illegal practice of switching your telephone provider to another provider without your permission.

Consumer Protection Tips:

  • Always examine your telephone bill thoroughly each month.
  • Look for companies you don't recognize and unauthorized services or additional services you did not order.
  • Read and most importantly understand the fine print on promotional mailings you receive before agreeing to any offer.
  • Before you agree to a telemarketer's offer, ask that they send you the information in writing.

What can I do if I'm a victim of cramming or slamming?

  • Call your local service provider (LSP). The telephone number is listed on your bill.
  • Register your complaint and ask to be reconnected to your chosen provider or have the unauthorized charges removed from your bill.
  • Call the company that you were switched to, or that placed additional unordered services and charges on your bill. Explain that you will NOT PAY for the unauthorized charges or service.
  • If the LSP is unable to help you with your problem, you have the right to file a complaint with the Public Utility Commission's Bureau of Consumer Services at 1-800-692-7380 or register your complaint online.

Long Distance Slamming - If you have been slammed by a long distance company, you should contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at 1-888-225-5322.

Collect Calls from Prison Inmates

When accepting collect calls from prisons, please be aware that an inmate is not able to access his or her preferred long distance telephone company from an "inmate only" telephone. Circumstances such as restrictions on the number of calls an inmate may make, call duration and calling hours may influence rates for these collect calls.

When an inmate makes an interstate (between different states), domestic interexchange telephone call, an inmate operator service provider must identify itself to the receiving party AND tell them how they can get rate quotations before connecting the call. The service provider must also allow the party to stop the call at no charge before the call is connected.

The PUC does NOT have jurisdiction or authority over the carrier selected by the correctional facility to provide telephone service, service contracts, length of calls, call monitoring, quality of calls or rates. For disputes about these issues contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at 1-800-225-5322 or the PA Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555.

Can the PUC investigate disputed charges billed to the customer of record that result from collect calls made to the customer’s telephone number from a correctional facility?

Yes - however, the PUC can only work toward having the disputed charges “removed” from the customer’s local bill. The PUC but does NOT have the authority to determine the validity of the charges or the liability of the charges.

Fat Finger Dialing

Be careful to dial correctly when placing collect or other operator-assisted calls. Otherwise, you or the party you are calling may pay more than expected for the call.

For example, suppose you are making a call from a payphone intending to use 1-800-CALL-ATT, but instead accidentally dial 1-800-CALLL-AT. Your call will go through, but you are not using the phone carrier you believed you were using. The carrier may not identify themselves before connecting the call, so you will not know that you have misdialed. What has happened is you've reached a company with an 800 number similar to a well-known one that is hoping you will misdial. Quite often, the charge for these misdialed numbers is 2 to 3 times higher than what it would have been had you reached your intended carrier.

Free Directory Assistance

Some local telephone companies offer free Directory Assistance to individuals with disabilities. For instance, if a disability makes it impossible for a customer to look up numbers in the telephone book or physically restricts the person from dialing a telephone number, the customer may be eligible for exemptions from local Directory Assistance charges.

Call your telephone company's business office to find out if your telephone provider offers this service and what the eligibility requirements are. The business office representative will also instruct you on how to apply for this service.

Pre-Paid Phone Cards

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection handles pre-paid phone card complaints. Consumers can contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 or at www.attorneygeneral.gov. The website provides online complaint forms under the heading "Public Protection."

Because of its convenience, many people are using prepaid phone cards to make long-distance telephone calls. Cards are usually sold in dollar amounts or by number of minutes. These cards are popular among students, travelers and those who have not selected a long-distance carrier. For international calls, many times a prepaid phone card will offer rates that are much lower than a telephone company's rates. This will depend on the country you call or the way you make the call.

Each card contains a toll-free access phone number and a personal identification number (PIN) printed on it. To make a call, dial the access number and enter the PIN. An automated voice will ask you to enter the phone number you are trying to call and will tell you how much time is left on your card. You may receive other information or options as well.

Phone card companies keep track of how much time you've used on your calling card by the card's PIN number. Some prepaid phone cards allow you to add time to your card by billing the cost to a credit card. If you cannot add time to your card, simply buy a new one once all the time has been used.

Beware, some prepaid phone cards have expiration dates on them. Be sure to keep track of these expiration dates so you don't lose unused minutes.

Fee for NOT choosing a Long Distance Provider

Why do consumers have to pay a fee for not choosing a long distance carrier?

Under the Federal Communications Commission's first report and order adopted on May 7, 1997, the local service providers have the right to collect monies directly from customers who do not select a long-distance carrier. The local service provider will charge the fee hoping that consumers will choose a carrier and stay with that carrier for an extended period of time.

Do I need to select a long distance carrier?

No. You can request “NONE” or “NO” long distance company from your local telephone company. You may choose this option because you never make long distance calls, you use a pre-paid phone card for your long distance calls or you make long distance calls on your wireless (cell) phone. You may add a long distance company at a later time. However, you will have to pay a charge. The charge is an FCC mandated fixed charge (usually $5). Your local telephone company will add this charge to your bill to make the change each and every time you request a change. The PUC does not regulate this charge.

Do Not Call Lists

Do Not Call Lists
Link to place your name on the state "Do Not Call" list. Pennsylvanians will be able to eliminate many unwanted telemarketing phone calls. The Office of the Attorney General is providing several convenient enrollment options that will speed the process and make it easy to sign up.

National Do Not Call Registry
Link to place your home or cell phone number on the national "Do Not Call" list.

Reading Your Phone Bill

Download the Guide on How To Read Your Phone Bill (PDF) to help you decipher your phone bill.

Using Telephone Company's Calling Cards

Don't get shocked by a high telephone bill you do not expect! Be sure to check the rates before you use a telephone company's calling card. Many times the rates will not be the same as the rates you would pay if you called the same number from your home phone. In fact, sometimes the rates are 3 to 4 times higher.

Often telephone companies mail their customers calling cards without the customers requesting them. An advantage of a calling card is that you can use it to make calls when away from home and the calls are billed on your regular telephone bill. This sounds convenient. However, there is often a price to pay for the convenience. That is why it is important to check the rates before you use the card to make calls and avoid "sticker shock" when you get your telephone bill.

Understanding the Taxes on Your Phone Bill

  • Federal Line Cost Charge (Also known as Federal Access Charge, Customer Line Charge, Interstate Access Charge, Interstate Single Line Charge, Subscriber Line Charge or SLC) is a charge billed by your local service provider to pay part of the cost of supplying a phone line to your home or business. This charge also helps local telephone companies recover the cost of providing telephone wires, telephone poles and other equipment and facilities connecting to the telephone network. All telephone company customers are charged this fee.
  • The Federal Universal Service Fund Surcharge is a charge that goes toward maintaining affordable local telephone service for all Americans. The fund provides discounted telephone service to schools, public libraries and low-income customers. All telephone customers pay this surcharge.
  • The Federal Tax (also known as the Federal Excise Tax) is a set percentage tax on all telecommuni-cations services. The federal government mandated this tax back in 1898 and it is still in effect. It applies to local, non-regulated and toll charges. For more information on this tax you can contact the Internal Revenue Service Excise Tax Branch.
  • The Local Number Portability Surcharge (also known as Number Portability Surcharge or LNP) is a fee that allows local telephone companies to recover costs associated with customers keeping the same telephone number when they switch from one local provider (telephone company) to another. This is called “number portability”. The surcharge is temporary. Companies can pass it along to the customer for a maximum five-year period. It is not a tax. Local telephone companies may not charge this fee to customers who participate in the Lifeline Assistance program.
  • The State & Local Taxes (also known as Gross Receipts Tax Surcharge, Interstate Tax Surcharge or State Universal Service Fund) are taxes charged by the state, local and/or municipal government on goods and services. These taxes vary by municipality. However, all telephone providers that serve your area will charge the same state and local tax rates. For more information about state taxes, call the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. For local tax information, you must contact your local tax bureau.
  • The 911 Charge is a fee charged by local governments to help pay for emergency services. In many areas the services include supplying the street address of callers through the phone lines to the emergency operator. Your local government determines the amount of this charge. All telephone customers are billed for the 911 charge.
  • The Pa Relay Surcharge funds the state relay center that transmits and translates telephone calls for persons who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech and language disorders. All telephone customers pay this surcharge.

Cell Phones or Wireless Phones

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has limited jurisdiction regarding wireless phone service.

Consumers should contact the PUC's Bureau of Consumer Services (BCS) for complaints to Wireless Lifeline Service. Contact the BCS hotline at 1-800-692-7380 or submit a complaint form.

For non-Lifeline complaints about wireless service, visit the following websites:

Federal Communications Commission

Pennsylvania Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection

Telephone Fact Sheet

Download the Telephone Facts (PDF) guide with answers to other common telecommunications questions.

Glossary of Telephone Terms

Learn more about telecommunications services and how they affect consumers and businesses by understanding the key terms defined in the Telecommunications Glossary.

Need More Help?

If you can't find what you're looking for here, please contact the PA Public Utility Commission. Call us at 1-800-692-7380 or contact us online.

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