by Sigi Rindler
Callback to my ancestors in Niger or Mauritius?
Well, most of you guys know that I come from Austria and have no actual business in either of the mentioned states. But if you are a heavy callback user as I am, you truly learn a great deal of geography and about the pleasure to haggle with callback providers and credit card companies to get your money back...
Everybody should have heard about callback services by now. All English publications in Japan carry daily ads of them and promise unbelievable prices. "Unbelievable" is actually grossly exaggerated since callback providers always compare their prices with KDDs most expensive day-rate fees. However, clever users don't read this nonsense anymore and rather start to compare prices of callback services against each other.
This can be a very tricky business, and the cheapest rates can actually turn out 50% higher in the end. Let's start with general issues and continue with the details later on...
Right now we have the official international carriers KDD (001), ITJ (0041), and IDC (0061) which offer a number of discounts, but subscribers need to pay various fees to call a couple of designated overseas telephone numbers for a "whopping" 13% discount. After that it'll still cost you 340 yen for a 3 minute call to the USA. I am not sure whether the minimum charge for a call is still 3 minutes (it used to be years ago), but that's what they say in their ads on TV. KDD was always the most expensive provider, whereas the other 2 carriers are following just 10 yen behind.
Then we have the inexpensive to not so cheap "callback services", some providers that claim not to be callback services, but are priced between callback and KDD, and finally services that use the Internet. They are slightly less expensive than the callback services, but the line quality leaves still something to be desired.
Since I know at least 4 people in the TPC who act as agents for various callback providers, I'll not use the actual names of these services since my observations and experiences might not be shared by other users. If you want to know more about eventual pitfalls, you'd need to ask me privately. Anyway, I haven't come across any callback service that is perfect in one way or the other...
OK, let's go!
After the first callback service arrived in Japan I quickly signed up with the Japanese branch of the US-based company. Some conservative individuals at the TPC-Thanks God, they have gone!-provided lectures about the illegality and such, but if I can save big bucks, I have no ears for such bull!<g> These guys used to call home from their work place and didn't have to be concerned about using their own pocket money... During those days there was a monthly $25 minimum fee for each phone registered. If you didn't call at all, the money was lost, otherwise it was balanced against calls that exceeded this amount.
How does callback work?
First you'd probably respond to one of their ads and request information. The company (mostly one-man agents on commission basis) will then mail or fax you the documents including the application form. You need to fill it out and send it back to the company.
In the field "Estimated Monthly Usage" (perhaps a similar wording for other services) you must write down your estimated amount for your monthly calls in US$. This is a mere safety function if someone happens to use your phone and calls his friend at the other side of the globe. If you specify $500, the call will be interrupted as soon this amount has been reached within a month. This limit has to be seen as a safety feature. If your kids start calling friends in other countries, you won't have to worry since $500 is all you have to pay...<g>
A couple of days after the application has been sent out you'll receive your so called "trigger" or "access" number from the company (the terminology varies widely among these services). As soon as you have these numbers you are set to use the service.
Your trigger number is exclusively associated with the telephone number you have registered. Let's try the first call:
1) Lift the handset from the hook.
2) Dial your trigger number (example: 0011-510-436-4778)
This number will call the callback company's computer in the USA. Let it ring only once and hang up. The computer at the other side of the ocean will determine where the "free" call came from and dial back.
3) After approx. 10 seconds you'll hear the phone ring. Lift the handset again and listen what the usually female voice says. Finally you dial the destination number which will originate in the USA also, taking advantage of this country's cheap overseas phone rates. Depending on the callback service you are requested to dial a "1" for the USA and Canada, and "011" for all other countries. Anyway these technicalities are all written in the documents sent by your callback provider. So, you'll need to do some homework yourself!
In your documents you should have a list of 200+ countries with their prices stated per minute. If you call many countries frequently as I do, using one callback service is no good deal. Some countries are very cheap while others seem to be overpriced. I use 4 services to get the most out of it. During the first years it wasn't very sound to do that since every company would charge a minimum fee of between $20 and $25 per phone and month.
Of course there was no speed dial function yet, but a function that promised to use the callback service at a hotel in another country. Well, it was just a promise and never worked whether the hotel had a switchboard or not. Otherwise the system worked amazingly well, for prices that were much cheaper than KDD's rip-off fees. Over the following years many things have changed to the better or the worse.
My first callback provider used clean phone lines, but was notorious for his invoices. They arrived 3 to 4 months later and were hard to control since the provided data lacked essential facts. Because of this reason I canceled my account and moved on to the next provider. This provider worked in a similar way, but the billing was more reliable. Using the voice phone has never caused any problem, but 95% of my calls are fax transmissions. For one month it worked fine, then the fax started to be interrupted after a couple of pages went through, or the transmission became so slow that using KDD during peak hours would have been the better deal...
Bigger callback providers have "customer support" centers that are open for 24 hours. Depending on the service, they can be anything like friendly, helpful, dumb, or rotten to the bone... especially when I started a stink after I was charged every call to the customer service to report their shortcomings. Well, it took over a year of frequent trouble with fax transmissions until I was told by one of their engineers that fax lines need to be very clean to transmit fast and trouble-free. This particular callback provider tried many things to fix the problem, but it never materialized.
The next service was one of the biggest players in the business. Since nobody of the TPC guys I know represents "Kallback", you may know the name.<g> With this company I remained for 2 years. Everything seemed to be 100% (good lines for one year, accurate billing, etc.). Then the trouble started to set in again... Everybody else I knew (I introduced many to this service) had zero problems, but then I started to get the same weird fax problems. In addition to that, the bills started to show weird countries I have called... but this wasn't the case.
It's very educational to learn about the correct spelling of certain banana republics, but not when I have to pay the exploration rates. Especially not when the long fax transmission to Niger (that's a place in Africa which isn't on my priority visitor's list) cost me $480. However, Mauritius is a desirable place to go; the $80 charge for calling Mr. Nobody is not. Smaller amounts, which sum up, were my calls to Estonia, South Africa, Russia, Korea, and some other countries. What has happened? I had dialed common countries which I have regular business with, but the provider's system had dropped the first digit, which represents the country code. Some months later the callback provider added a very good feature which I haven't seen anywhere else. After the entire number is dialed, a female voice says: "You are connected with *country name*"! If you hear "Niger", just hang up and redial.
How to get your money back?
Well, there was no problem with Kallback. They said that I should tell them the calls in question, but Visa in Tokyo was not so generous. I was told that their "deadline" for reimbursement had expired the day before, therefore I had to wait another month to the next 15th... If that ever happens to you, ask to be connected with the supervisor. Once the guy is on the line, explain the situation quietly-don't give him a chance to negotiate anything-then tell him that you'd consult with your lawyer, if the money which the callback provider had already reimbursed, is not in your bank within 2 days. You may also ask whether Visa was interested in being discussed in-depth on NiftyServe and on the Internet! This method might not be everyone's style, but I don't want to waste time with useless correspondence. Well, the money was in the bank... not after 2 days but on the same day in the afternoon. Financial institutions try to avoid any trouble involving them publicly. It was an easy decision since their only loss was the interest on money that wasn't theirs.<eg>
After I had to use one of the official Japanese long distance carriers several times when the callback service didn't work, I decided again to sign up with other callback providers. It's always a pain since every system works differently, and the all new invoices need some adjustment to get used to them.
Ads of callback providers can be found in your local English newspapers. However, watch out for fraudulent ads!! Recently there was an ad that announced: "U.S.A. 34 yen only!" I called the phone number, and a guy with Australian or Cockney accent answered. "Are you really offering calls to the USA for 27 to 28 cents?" I asked. "27 cents???"... he repeated. "Well you advertised the rates in yen, and that the rate is calculated as 1 US$ = 100 yen. It's the last line in your ad that requires a magnifier to decipher the tiny letters. Since 1 US$ equals now approx. 125 yen, 34 yen is 27.xx cent, no?"... I responded.
Then he started to explain that the ad was placed long ago, and that changing it was a hassle, and other bla-bla. Anyway, since it doesn't cost me a single yen, I signed up. The reason was that a couple of countries were far cheaper than that of other callback providers.
Here are some examples of rates per minute from some inexpensive callback providers (in cents):
A week later I was in "business!"
My first trial with this inexpensive service was faxing 80 pages of text to Hamburg, Germany for 43 cents. It worked right away, but nature suddenly called... When I returned to the fax, I realized that only 10 pages had passed through. This means that each A4 sized page took about 1.5 minutes, whereas I was used to transmission speeds of 35 to 45 seconds. The remaining documents were then faxed with another callback service that charges 49 cents for the same destination. The average speed was 35 seconds!
By the way, you cannot check the transmission speed of your callback service if you send only 1 page since the first page will always take longer than the following pages. The handshake negotiation between the two fax machines will take up to 30 seconds in addition to the actual transmission time, so you may estimate that the first page (typewritten text only) may take up to 60 seconds. Add another 5 seconds until the phone line is actually disconnected. There is some delay between the end signal of your fax transmission and the actual shutdown.
You might ask whether using several callback providers makes sense. Well, if you don't spend more than 5000 yen a month on overseas calls (that's 142 minutes calling the USA at any given time!), it's not worth the hassle. For me it is since I fax every month up to 1000 pages and often more to various countries. It makes a difference whether I pay 65 yen/min to Germany or just 43 yen. Yes the prices are that much apart. Calls to Belgium can cost you 108 yen vs. 51 yen... Unfortunately, I need to use another provider who charges 49 yen to fax documents to Germany. His phone lines are fax-compatible, the cheap service is not. You'll need to experiment and find out yourself.
Slow throughput can also originate at your own side. Call NTT to have your phone wires "cleaned". Another bottleneck at some providers is when you try to fax at peak times. Often I couldn't get through (18:00 to 21:00), but I can't tell for sure... There is a rumor that KDD and/or the other official carriers jam callback numbers. A friend who works at NTT says that he wouldn't know for sure, but jamming callback access numbers are no big deal for their technicians. Still, the cost savings are worth the hassle for the one who foots the bill.
What else is to say about callback?
Well, these providers don't hassle you at any given time with unsolicited phone calls like KDD and other official carriers do. They call on Sundays and other public holidays, during business time, while I am having dinner, and even after 10 p.m.! My friendliness toward them has already hit the bottom, but they still don't get the picture! Recently a guy from Nigeria, who was working part-time for KDD, called me about KDD's "great family discounts". In this conversation he'd finally concede that he was using a callback service himself.
Another nuisance with callback services is that most of them use different company names when withdrawing money from your credit card (weekly procedure). It's often hard to know who is who, but this problem occurs with a couple of mail order companies also. If you use the callback service for fax transmissions, keep the log files since they are very helpful when disputes about questionable calls occur. Unfortunately, there is no proof on your side when using a phone only. Here you'll have to trust the company's invoice, something I really detest.
Over the years I have heard a lot of whining by KDD bosses. They claimed that callback providers were stealing from them since they'd use their phone lines for free (the initial unfinished call). KDD wanted to get 40 yen/min at one point in the early stages, something that would have meant the demise of callback services in Japan. Fortunately, the Japan vs. USA trade balance helped the government to reconsider by not supporting KDD in its wishful thinking to maintain the long distance phone monopoly. After that I read and heard phrases where KDD officials were expressing that supporting these things were "morally wrong"... However, by this time I had already lost my last "telecom morals" since these guys have milked me for so many years by charging the highest phone rates in the world. I would have liked them to answer my innocent question:
"If a thief gets robbed by a thief, do you call the original crook a victim who deserves our sympathy?"
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