Hanging up on killer 411 fees

At $2 a pop, a few calls to wireless directory assistance each month can add up fast. Here's how to avoid paying anything at all.

By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Can't remember the number of the restaurant you wanted to go to for dinner, or the name of that movie theater around the corner? Before you dial directory assistance from your cell phone, think for a minute about what it will cost you.

Wireless carriers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint and AT&T (Charts, Fortune 500) charge $1.49 to $1.79 a pop, plus air time, roaming, long distance charges and state and local taxes. All that adds up to a hefty sum at the end of the month, and a steep annual expense.

Indeed, Americans paid about $7.9 billion in 411 charges in 2006, according to industry analyst Kathleen Pierz -- a lot of money for just a little information.

And fees for directory assistance calls are actually on the rise. Earlier this year, Sprint (Charts, Fortune 500) raised its 411 fee to $1.79 from $1.49. Last year, AT&T upped its fee to $1.79 and in 2005, Verizon Wireless boosted its charge to $1.49 from $1.25.

Wireless carriers often justify these steep charges by pointing to the additional information their directory assistance may provide, like a reverse number look-up, movie show times and driving directions. But who really uses those? Chances are you are just looking for the stuff that's found in the yellow pages.

So how can you scale down your surcharges?

In the competitive world of wireless carriers, some outfits offer less expensive options for 411. "If 411 is important to you, there may be a carrier out there with a competitive package," offered Joseph Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group representing the wireless telecommunications industry. For example, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless currently offer the least expensive options of all the major carriers.

But nothing is as cheap as free. There are a number of competitors that have popped up in recent years hoping to take a bite out of the directory assistance market like 1-800-FREE-411, which is operated by Jingle Networks. The ad-sponsored service looks up over 20 million numbers a month for callers fed up with 411 fees. There are trade-offs however.

To use 1-800-FREE-411, information seekers must listen to an advertisement before and after submitting their request to find a phone number -- and they have to speak to an automated system instead of live operators. And FREE-411 won't automatically connect callers to the number they're trying to reach - so have a pen handy.

Google (Charts, Fortune 500) also launched a free 411 service, 1-800-GOOG-411, earlier this year. Again, it can take a while for the automated assistant to understand your inquiry. But on the plus side, you can get connected automatically or have the information texted directly to your cell - no No. 2 pencil necessary.

And don't forget pay phones. Sure, they may be antiquated, but they're still the best 411 deal around -- dialing 1, plus the area code, plus 555-1212 gets you free directory assistance. Just pack some Purell.

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