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411 directory assistance is questionable at best, a scam at worst

Phone scams

Phone scams.

A couple of months ago I was temporarily in a bit of a desperate situation. I had just been dropped off at a ferry terminal by friends, and I had left something important in their car. I was sure they had a cell phone, but I didn’t know their number. But if anyone had their cell number it would be their son, so I dialled 411 to get his home number. I do realise these days that the phone book isn’t what it once was, and my own number isn’t even in it, but it was worth a shot to save my friends from driving all the way home and then having to turn around and do the drive again. So I gave directory assistance the name and town I required. Efficient as ever, they immediately came back (within seconds) with a number for, I guess, the right name but in a different town. This was no use to me, so I called back. I explained what had happened, and restated the name and town.

This time I got the opposite result: a different person in the right town. So I gave up and left a message on my friends’ land line. In retrospect, I don’t even think what I was given was anything even close to what I asked for; if I want the number for Bob Smith in Town A, why give me the number for a random Bob Smith in Town B? That’s not what I asked for! And in the second case, what’s the point in giving me the number for Barb Smith in Town A?!

I eventually got a hold of my friends and got my stuff back. I felt bad for making them drive back to the ferry terminal, but all ended well, and I was only one ferry behind schedule.

Fast forward a few weeks and, of course, I’m billed for the two pointless directory assistance calls by Troublesome Mobile (aka Freedom Mobile). I expected this, of course, and as planned I phoned them and asked for those charges to be cancelled. (If my second 411 attempt had been successful I’d have eaten the first charge, but both times directory assistance just shovelled a random number in my direction and washed their hands of me.) I was told flat out by Troublesome Mobile that, as they were billed to Troublesome by a third party, they could not refund the charges for the calls. Supposedly I would have to phone the third party to get a refund. What?! I obviously don’t even have an account with this third party, so how the fuck would I or they even do that?! They couldn’t give me a phone number to call, so said I should just phone 411.

I explained to Troublesome Mobile — I have a long list of alternative names for them, but “Troublesome Mobile” is probably the only polite one and the closest to “Freedom Mobile” — that they provided the opportunity for me to use the service and they billed me for the service, so they were the only party it made sense for me to call! To make a long story short, after much hemming and hawing and obfuscation and making sure that I understood the obvious, that the service wasn’t free, they finally agreed — “just this one time” — to refund my $3.50 ($1.75 per call).

In the “old days” 411 was a useful service. But, like all mass services these days, the people in the call centres are being timed like rats in a maze, and there’s no time allowed to actually confirm with the caller exactly what they want and that the information the call taker has is what the caller wants (I remember they used to do that) and there’s no opportunity to tell the system that the number you’ve been given is of no use to you or wasn’t even what you asked for in the first place. Nope, it’s just hit a couple of buttons and get the caller off the line as quickly as possible so that you can move onto the next call.

For this reason I will go out of my way to try anything except calling 411 in the future. A dollar fifty isn’t a life-changing amount of money, but as usual — especially with Troublesome Mobile (aka Freedom Mobile) and Canadian cell phone companies in general — it’s the principle of the matter. I will not allow them to take my money without at least providing the service for which I’m supposedly paying — and which they are advertising on the outside of the box; either they give me the number I’m actually looking for, or they be honest and tell me that they don’t have it and therefore are not going to charge me for their inability to provide it. Anything else is theft, and failing to provide the service you’re advertising and still charging for it is a scam. If more consumers actually acted on being scammed out of a dollar fifty once in a while the phone companies might actually go back to providing the service they’re claiming to offer.

Out of range or no pwr at base: VTech cordless phone

VTech model CS6649-3 cordless phone and "digital answering system"

VTech model CS6649-3 cordless phone and “digital answering system”.

After a power failure, the cordless handsets on my VTech CS6649-3 cordless phone and “digital answering system” stopped working and displayed “Out of range or no pwr at base” on their screens. This system is at least ten years old, so I figured I’d be buying a new system. However, I did a web search and came across a couple of pages that didn’t quite help me solve my problem, but got me started.

The least helpful, of course, was the first result from VTech themselves: “What should I do if Out of range OR No pwr at base appears on my cordless handset?” I did briefly consider the possibility of third-party interference, but this seemed highly unlikely all of a sudden.

Further help was available at the following links:

The latter also led me to the video by Andrew Calvet, which is cut off suddenly at the end. (The “*7890#” code in this video works on my phone, but the “*331734#” code mentioned in other search results, including the two above, does not.) I got the same result as in the video, and then just hit “off/cancel” key several times to get back to the home screen. However, my screen still stated “Out of range or no pwr at base”, so I was no further ahead. So I decided to disconnect the battery, wait a few seconds, then reconnect it. (I needed to gently use pliers.) It then stated, “To register HS see manual”. Great. So I started to look for the physical manual, then remembered I had it saved on my computer.

I haven’t done a page-by-page comparison, but page 61 of this manual has the instructions “to register a handset”:

  1. Press and hold FIND HANDSET on the telephone base for about four seconds until the IN USE light turns on and it shows Registering…
  2. Press QUIET# on the handset. The handset shows Registering… Both the telephone base and cordless handset show Registered, and you hear a beep from the handset when the registration process completes. The registration process takes about 60 seconds.

I had to set the date and time the first time I did this on the first handset, but didn’t have to for the other two handsets. At the end of it all, all three remote handsets are working. The base was always working.

Not sure if just disconnecting and reconnecting the batteries in the handsets (and re-registering) would have done the trick; perhaps entering the “*7890#” code wasn’t actually a necessary part of the process.

Hope this helps you.


Updated, 2021-07-27: This happened again less than six months later. I can therefore confirm that simply disconnecting and reconnecting the battery does not work. You still need to enter the code as instructed in the video, then disconnect and reconnect the battery. The cause of the current failure is unknown, as we did not have another power failure.


Updated, 2021-08-30: OK, it seems that I’m having to do this almost regularly now, although the most recent time happened after I pulled the plug on everything in my office while I went away for a couple of weeks. So, for my own benefit, rather than making you (or me) watch the video and read the manual, here are the steps:

  1. On a/the handset, press MENU/SELECT.
  2. Scroll up to Settings.
  3. Press MENU/SELECT.
  4. Enter *7890#.
  5. Scroll to TEST HANDSET.
  6. Press MENU/SELECT.
  7. Scroll up to NEXT PAGE ….
  8. Press MENU/SELECT.
  9. Next menu option displaying should be REGSTR CLEAR. Press MENU/SELECT.
  10. The phone will ask you to confirm “REG CLEAR ?“. Press MENU/SELECT.
  11. Disconnect and reconnect the battery in the handset. It’s my habit to wait a few seconds in between. The handset will now display “To register HS See manual”.
  12. On the base, press and hold FIND HANDSET for about four seconds until the IN USE light turns on and it shows Registering….
  13. Press QUIET# on the handset. The handset shows Registering…. Both the telephone base and cordless handset show Registered, and you hear a beep from the handset when the registration process completes. The registration process takes about 60 seconds.

You’re done.

Cell phone carriers coincidentally raise prices at the same time

Within the last few days, two of the “big three” cell phone companies in the uncompetitive Canadian cartel/oligopoly (Bell and Rogers) “coincidentally” raised their prices at exactly the same time by exactly the same amount! Telus jumped the gun by doing the same in January, apparently. Wow, what are the chances?! What an incredible coincidence — and I mean “incredible” 100% literally. Should Canadian consumers rush out and buy lottery tickets, or (more likely) look skyward and prepare to dodge lightning bolts?

Probably neither, actually. The proper response is to adopt the position — i.e., bend over. As Michael Geist writes, Why Are Canadian Wireless Carriers Increasing Prices? Because They Can. And because they have nothing but contempt for their customers.

Can anybody say “collusion”? I knew you could.

Thieving bastards.

Possible arrival of Verizon in Canada

I’m not a big fan of multinationals, and quite frankly I’m dubious about the possible entry of Verizon into the Canadian cell phone market — the market with the highest prices and least competition in the world. (Third World countries like Somalia and Zambia have better service and lower prices than Canada.) I’m also not happy about the way the scheme to encourage new entrants and more competition in the market has been co-opted by the Big Three (Bell, Telus and Rogers).

But if companies like Bell are willing to take many of their customers’ hard-earned dollars out of their overflowing coffers to buy full-page advertising in major newspapers to convince the same customers they’re already screwing that Verizon’s entry into Canada is a bad thing, then on that basis alone I say we should roll out the red carpet for Verizon.

Think about it. Things can’t get much worse for the consumer, and one can only hope that things get a little tougher for the incumbents, even if only temporarily.

Update, 30 July 2013: And now Telus is spending your money suing you via the federal government!

Sticker shock on Canadian cell data rates

I had to do a double take after I put myself back into my chair and fastened my seatbelt when I saw the price of data transfer on the Virgin Mobile Canada website: $51 200 per gigabyte! Holy shit Batman! Are you kidding me? (See the “Canada Rates” tab at “Long Distance and Roaming“.) On a low-end high-speed Internet connection for a residential customer, that would translate into a bill of $6.4 million per month if you used your full bandwidth allotment! How is that justifiable when other packages on their site are advertised at a “mere” $15 per gigabyte, less than three ten-thousandths of the price? How is it justifiable, period?!

Virgin Mobile Canada data rate of $51 200 per GB!

Virgin Mobile Canada data rate of $51 200 per GB!

Virgin Mobile Canada data rate of $15 per GB.

Virgin Mobile Canada data rate of $15 per GB.

It just highlights what is common knowledge among any Canadians even vaguely aware of cell phone rates outside of Canada. We have among the highest rates (on voice and data) anywhere in the world — the absolute highest according to some surveys. Even Somalia, a Third World country in the thrall of pirates and warlords that has been without a functioning government for over two decades, has better and more competitive cell service than Canada. Why we put up with this, and why our government continues to allow the cell phone companies to gang together and collectively bend us over and screw us, is beyond my comprehension.

So having braved looking at a cell phone company’s website again, I’m going to retreat back into my Luddite cave as I head down the home stretch of my fifth year without the financial millstone of a cell phone hanging around my neck.

Some more links for your consideration:


Update, 14 March 2012: A glimmer of hope on the horizon: Ottawa opens telecom to foreigners, although the announcement is a bit of a mixed bag. Not that I think that “foreigners” are Canadians’ salvation, but our own countrymen (and -women) are quite happy to screw us. However, with Canada being the most expensive place on the planet to own and operate a cell phone, there is only one way for prices to go … assuming the tendency will be to head towards the middle of the pack, and not into the stratosphere! It’s competition and a smashing of the oligopoly that’s needed, and if that means that it takes Europeans, Asians or even Africans owning cell phone companies 100%, then so be it.

Bell Canada thievery

An open letter to Bell Canada:

Your charge for a one-minute phone call from Ottawa to Vancouver of $11.27 is nothing short of thievery. It’s no wonder that people despise the “big” phone companies like Bell. This level of daylight robbery is what colours one’s opinions of other services offered by your company, such as cellular telephone services. If you will use one of your services to rob customers blind, you’ll probably do it with other services too, and so I will ensure that I avoid doing any type of business with Bell in the future based on this one extremely distasteful experience.

BlackBerry/RIM. Going, going, gone?

A couple of years ago my company had a major server outage on a primary server that brought down websites and email for almost two and a half hours. Such outages are rare, but they happen, and they happen to small hosting companies like NinerNet as well as the giants. After that outage I wrote about the lessons learnt and, without trying to deflect attention or criticism away from us, I pointed out an extensive list of major service outages experienced by the likes of Google, Amazon, YouTube, Barclays Bank, MySpace, Facebook, PayPal, Microsoft, eBay, and so on.

Also in that list was BlackBerry/RIM, and this is what I wrote at the time on them in particular:

Have a Blackberry? Do you realise that all Blackberry emails in the whole world go through one data centre in central Canada, and if that data centre has a problem, you can still use your Blackberry for a paperweight? Nobody is immune; nobody gets away unscathed.

I’m under the impression that, since then, RIM expanded that single point of failure to create multiple points of failure (often under threat of sanctions by governments who want access to their citizens’ communications), and fail they have — worldwide — in the last few days. And for several days, not just a couple of hours.

Without wanting to gloat over a mortally-wounded about-to-be corpse, RIM’s problems weren’t that difficult to predict. Unfortunately for them they are, at this time, the victim of a perfect storm that includes (among other things) poor sales and share performance, product failures, the almost simultaneous (to their technical troubles) launch of a new messaging system on the iPhone to rival BlackBerry Messenger, and these latest technical troubles. But this perfect storm is of RIM’s own making, and their problems go deeper than that anyway; they go to the heart of their core philosophies.

Now, I’m no Apple fanboi (and in the wake of the death of Steve Jobs I commend to you What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs), but at least an iPhone more resembles a “proper” computer like the one you have on your desk than the toaster in your kitchen that can only do the one or two things its manufacturer decided in its infinite wisdom it needs to do. Mobile computers (aka “smartphones”) like the iPhone and those running on the Android operating system rely on open standards when it comes to things like email. In short, open standards and systems win. (That said, Apple is not the poster child for open standards and systems, and needs to change that.) There is no central super-server somewhere handling all email for all iPhone or Android users worldwide, just waiting to fail. With BlackBerry there is … or was. End of story.

If you swallowed RIM’s mantra about their system being de rigueur for business and the iPhone being “not for business”, you’re paying for that today.

Sorry for that.


Update, 30 May 2012: Seven months later and Roger Cheng at CNET finally comes to much the same conclusion.

Bizarre Virgin Mobile Terms and Conditions of Service

Occasionally I feel that I really must address my insomnia by reading the mounds of legalese shoved in my face every time I want to do anything in this modern society of ours. This is particularly important where money is involved, of course, which means all of the mindless EULAs (end user licence agreements) that I’m presented with when installing software generally get skipped. Fortunately I have an old computer that I try out new software on first, so if I missed the part in an EULA that says the software manufacturer can install viruses on my computer, it’s not a big deal because the old computer is just for testing, doesn’t contain any sensitive or important data, and can be reformatted at a moment’s notice without any hesitation.

Anyway, back to legal agreements involving money. Back in 2007 I bought a Virgin Mobile Canada cell phone. I stopped using their service a few months later because I cancelled my planned move to the new area code where I got the phone, and I gave the phone to a friend. At the time I noticed some rather bizarre wording in their “Terms and Conditions of Service”. However, as we all know, you either bend over and agree, or go and live in a cave.

Fast forward a couple of years and I bought a cell phone as a present for someone, and I decided to go with Virgin again. Another year later and I’m again looking at the “Terms and Conditions of Service”. The bizarre wording has survived at least three years, unchallenged (I assume) by anyone with the time, interest and money to pursue what surely must be a serious privacy issue. (I have the interest, but neither the time nor the money.)

Here’s the bizarre wording (which I have truncated and annotated), from the “About Content Provided By You” section:

Any Content transmitted through or to the Services by you will be considered non-confidential and non-proprietary. [Fair enough, I suppose. This is a cover-your-arse sentence in case someone manages to intercept your “content”. If I was a government spy, I’m sure my employer would give me a super secret phone that would ensure that my “content” remained confidential.] … Virgin Mobile, its Suppliers and designees will be free to copy, disclose, distribute, incorporate and otherwise use the Content and all data, images, sounds, text, and other things embodied therein for any and all commercial or non-commercial purposes. [Whoa! Seriously?! So those naked pics I sent my girlfriend are fair game, and I can expect to see them published by Virgin in a glossy magazine at some point? And what about those steamy phone conversations when I’m away from home? Broadcast on radio and television?!] You agree to grant to Virgin Mobile a non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual license, with the right to sublicense, reproduce, distribute, transmit, create derivative works of, or publicly display any Content submitted, transmitted or posted by you through or on the Services. [Hey, if you’re going to make me a reluctant porn star, at least cough up some of the dough you’ll be making off of me!]

Now, I think it’s safe for any reasonable person to assume that no sane company is going to start trawling though billions of their customers’ inane text messages — and, I might add, the “content” sent to the “services” by non-customers who have not consented to these terms — collecting the more salacious ones to make into a coffee table book. However, if Virgin were to go insane and do so, guess what? You (and I) agreed to it!

Welcome to the modern, civilised world.