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Cybertalk by Timothy C. Barmann / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

Hangups hurt low-priced phone long distance
There's nothing like the jolt of a $200 telephone bill to catapult you into action.

It happened in our household when a handful of calls my wife made on a trip recently landed us with the largest long-distance bill we had ever seen.

That sent me wandering the Web in search of better deals.

I found one. It's a long-distance service called Bigzoo.com.

Bigzoo is similar to a pre-paid calling card. To make long-distance calls, you first dial a toll-free number, an assigned identification number and finally the number you are calling. You can use it from home, work or a pay phone. The service doesn't require you to switch or cancel your long-distance carrier.

Bigzoo's biggest draw is its rates -- 3.9 cents per minute, plus a 75 cents-a-month fee. That is about the lowest rate available from any company.

(Its rates are even lower -- 3.6 cents a minute -- in the 30 cities where Bigzoo has a local access number. The company doesn't have such a number in Rhode Island or nearby Massachusetts.)

I tried Bigzoo to make a handful of calls over a couple weeks. I found we were able to save more than half the cost of calls we had been making through AT&T. But several times I wasn't able to complete calls because the service wasn't reachable, or it hung up on me. Any beyond that, the company appears to have some serious customer service and billing issues.

Besides its low rates, Bigzoo is unique in another way. It is a telephone company that doesn't want you to know its telephone number. If you want to call the Los Angeles-based company with questions, problems or complaints, you're out of luck. The company doesn't list its number on its Web site. And it is not listed with Verizon's directory assistance, nor can it be found with online directory Switchboard.com. Bigzoo only wants customers to contact it by e-mail.

The reason, according to Yong T. Lee, Bigzoo president, is that the company can save money and better keep track of customer problems if service issues are handled entirely by e-mail.

"The only way we can track customer service is to tag it," Yong said in a phone interview last week. "The only way we know how to do it is e-mail. That allows us to offer a great price."

He said Bigzoo was designed to appeal to people comfortable with using the Internet who are looking for the best price. "Customers who really require the human interface, they should not sign up with us," he said. "The customer who goes to Costco or Southwest Airlines is our type of customer."

Lee won't say exactly how many employees the company has, except that it is less than 50. Bigzoo has been in business since May 1999 and now has "well over" 100,000 customers, he said. It uses mostly traditional long-distance telephone lines it leases from long-distance carriers. A small percentage of customer calls are placed over the Internet, Lee said.

Signing up for Bigzoo is easy at its Web site (http://www.bigzoo.com). You select the amount of money you want to put in your account, and that amount is charged to your credit card. Initially, you can start with as little as $5, but to "recharge" your account, you have to pay in set amounts of $10, $20 or $50. Whenever you make a call, the cost is deducted from your account.

The service e-mails you an identification number, which is your own phone number, plus a four-digit number Bigzoo assigns. Then you're ready to use it.

Making calls is somewhat of a hassle. Dialing the service's toll-free number, your identification number plus the number you are calling amounts to punching 35 digits. Programming the "speed dial" function found on most telephones can make that easier.

One of the best features of the service is the ability to see the calls you made and their associated charges by logging into your account on the Bigzoo Web site. The charges show up immediately after you hang up. You can sort the charges by the phone number you called from, or the number you dialed.

Despite its useful Web site, the Bigzoo service is lacking. The first few times I tried it, it worked fine. But I soon ran into busy signals when calling its toll-free number.

Bigzoo apparently has a lot of work to do on its customer service too. I sent a note describing my trouble, and four days later as I write this column, I still haven't heard anything back.

More disturbing is the experience of a colleague who said Bigzoo double-billed her credit card when she first signed up in August. She noticed the error when she got her credit card bill, and notified Bigzoo by e-mail. Six weeks later, she has only received automated e-mail messages from Bigzoo's customer service department, urging her to be patient.

Yong, the company president, said Bigzoo was having some technical problems the weekend I couldn't place a call, and it was addressing them. (Two days after the interview, the problem persisted.)

As for double billing, Yong said that can happen if a customer is impatient and presses a button that submits their sign-up information more than once. "We 100 percent credit back people."

He said the company has not yet met its own goal of answering customer e-mail within a day. He didn't explain why the company still had not resolved my colleague's six-week-old billing problem.

I really wanted to recommend Bigzoo because its rates are rock-bottom. Unfortunately, it seems that its service and response times rank well below some of its competitors as well.
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