Stupid traveler tricks II

This is something I will never do in a hotel room again. Ever.

Published August 25, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Last week I introduced the Case of the Phony Phone Calls, in which I invited you to guess why dozens and dozens of local phone calls had been charged to my hotel account one night in Los Angeles when I was out of my room at dinner.

First of all, thank you for your enthusiastic responses! More than 450 of you sent me e-mails proposing a variety of explanations for the mysterious phone charges.

The main explanations fell into three categories.

One was some variation on an endless-redial theme, as in these e-mails:

"I think that the redial button was stuck on the phone, automatically redialing the same number until the next time the phone was used. Good guess?"

"The phone was trying to redial the last number you called automatically -- a feature that is offered in some areas of L.A."

"I think the hotel is using an AT&T service that automatically redials a busy number until you manually pick up the phone and dial another number."

Essentially, most of these speculated that my last phone call before leaving for dinner had not gone through, thereby triggering an automatic-redialing service that would keep trying until the call was completed. This was a good guess, but wrong.

Others suggested that an automatically redialing fax was to blame:

"My guess is you tried to send a fax before you went to dinner. You left without realizing it hadn't gone through (wrong number, whatever) but the machine diligently tried the number every five minutes until you returned and reclaimed the phone line to call your voice-mail."

I especially liked this particular e-mail because it went on to describe a mistake even more horrific than my own phone faux pas:

"I heard of a family, on NPR I think, that had a fax. One of their daughters tried to send a fax to a wrong number right before the family went on vacation. No one noticed, and the fax machine worked away for 10 days while the family was vacationing, redialing the number every three minutes. Worse, the number wasn't only wrong but very long distance as well. They have since cut back, possessing only an old dial telephone in the kitchen."

An old dial telephone -- that's my kind of family!

Alas, while the fax scenario makes a certain kind of ineluctable sense to me, this also was not the case.

Three other notes merit special mention.

One reader wrote:

"There is a Nigerian group of 'small-time' terrorists who will call the hotel and using a special trick with phone numbers and the hotel's main board will bounce off very expensive calls. Typically this is done by tricking the front desk clerk but can be done other ways -- the titles on the bill match the calls you made, but that is also a trick made to hide long-distance calls. Most hotel managers are aware of these tricks but do not want to be stuck with the bill, since the latest method devised by the terrorists is very difficult to untangle. And no, I'm not nuts. This is the truth as I have seen similar things myself."

Uh, Scully, can you look into this?

I like the progression -- the gradual unraveling -- in this second writer's theories:

"Your laptop was plugged into the phone line, and, as soon as you left the room, it became a sentient being and tried to dial up a connection, over and over again.

"Your phone was programmed to automatically call room service at 7 p.m. until someone answered ... or not.

"You are the only person to experience a Y2K-related phone glitch.

"Remember that kid you teased back in seventh grade? He's baaackkk."

That's hard to top, but this is my favorite of all the 450-plus notes:

"I would guess that you have your dial-up .exe set to retry the line every five minutes, or you have your mail program set to check your in box every five minutes. Either that or you really made all those calls and have created a false reality in order to avoid having to pay for your foolish actions. In which case, the maid was a government spy who used your laptop to access your top-secret files, and then, just to kick you in the ass, made page after page of one-minute calls to the same number. Could go either way if you ask me, and you did."

I thought that maid was suspicious!

The inspiring -- or depressing, depending on your point of view -- truth is that more than half of you who responded understood immediately what had baffled me.

Here's one writer who put it eloquently and simply: "You left your e-mail application running and the computer connected to the phone jack. The application was set to poll for new e-mail every five minutes. So it called, checked and found no new e-mail, then logged off and did this every five minutes until you came back and disconnected it to use the phone."

That sums it up beautifully: I use Eudora, and I have it programmed to check for new e-mail every five minutes. Way back in the mists of time, I also apparently configured it to automatically disconnect after it had searched for e-mail if it hadn't been connected to begin with.

At the hotel I had checked my e-mail one last time before going to dinner, then disconnected the computer's remote access connection, but I hadn't quit the e-mail program or turned off my computer.

So while I was off at the Cafe des Artistes happily quaffing goblets of cabernet sauvignon and scarfing down platters of filet mignon and french fries, my persevering Powerbook G3 was valiantly attempting to check my e-mail, every five minutes.

It would rouse itself to look for the mail and then, discovering that it was disconnected from the MindSpring server, would dial up the local access number that I had earlier typed into the settings and saved. It would huff and puff and finally pry open a PPP connection and then it would zealously scour the system for e-mail, find that I had none and disconnect. Over and over and over again.

I don't know about you, but I just don't go around thinking about these things most of the time. I'm much more prone to think about what I should wear to the Cafe des Artistes and just how many stars there are in that Hollywood sky and what I should do if Gwyneth Paltrow sits next to me.

Actually, I do know about you -- at least, 450 or so of you. And more than half of you apparently do think about such things. The good news is that only a few of you who solved the mystery felt the need to remind me just how stupid I had been. And many of you kindly confessed that you too had done similarly stupid things -- and had in fact been faced with bills of even more gargantuan and stupefying proportion on checkout. I love you!

The only prize I can offer all of you who guessed correctly, alas, is an invitation, all expenses unpaid, to accompany me on my next business trip and try to keep me out of this kind of trouble. But I guess that would spoil the fun, wouldn't it?

Now for the second part of the mystery: How did the hotel respond?

As you may recall, when we left the scene last week, I was anxiously peering with the front desk clerk at the prolific printout of my phone charges, trying to divine what had happened.

When I heard that every local call gets charged $1 and when I noticed that the calls were placed exactly every five minutes, the light bulb flashed: "Eudora!" I exclaimed.

I explained to the clerk about the e-mail program automatically connecting to the MindSpring server to check for mail every five minutes and then said something along the lines of "I realize this was a very stupid thing to do and was entirely my fault and you're not responsible for my stupidity. On the other hand, I didn't get anything out of these calls. I was away at dinner and really didn't intend to make them, and I'd be ever so grateful if you could take these calls off my bill. Is that possible?" And I put on as pitifully imploring a look and as winning a smile as I could muster.

It would be good for the hotels of the world to see your e-mails to me on this matter, for about two-thirds of you felt that the hotel had stuck me with the charges in full, or at least in half. About a third of you thought the hotel waived the charges. And a small number of you wondered if the hotel waived the charges just for me because they knew I was a travel writer.

To address this last point first, I don't think the hotel knew that I write a weekly travel column for Salon. My reservation had been made as part of a large block of rooms for the conference I was attending, I hadn't received any kind of preferential treatment up to that point, as far as I could tell, and none of the hotel people I had encountered seemed to have the foggiest idea who I am (a not-uncommon occurrence).

I must say that when I had explained to the clerk what had happened, I was sorely tempted to take out a notepad and pen and say grandly, "By the way, I write a weekly travel column which is read by hundreds of thousands of people, and what did you say your name was again?" -- but I didn't. I just smiled and implored.

The clerk looked balefully at me and then at the Proustian printout and said in a tight little voice, "Excuse me," and walked through a secret doorway behind the reception desk that is used only in cases where guests are considered to be unreasonable or unstable.

I was expecting her to return with a couple of knuckle-cracking musclemen in tuxedos or a slick-suited, sour-faced, "Sorry, but there's nothing we can do"-spouting manager, but to my surprise she returned after a few minutes, alone and with a sweet glint in her eye.

She unfurled the phone log in front of me, raised a pen like a sword into the air and said, "We will not charge you for the calls made from here" -- and she slashed above the first of the phony phone connections -- "to here," and she Zorro'd a line beneath the last of the lot.

Then, poising her pen above the next call, to a San Francisco number, she said, "It appears that you actually made this call -- is that correct?"

Suffused -- almost dizzy -- with gratitude, I simply said, "Yes, yes, that's correct."

"Well then," she said, with a mix of clerkly efficiency and queenly compassion, "let's see -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... " -- and she knighted every single call with the tip of that pen. The total came to somewhere around 70 calls -- $70! -- and she poked a few buttons and pressed a few bars, and then a new bill spewed magically out of the printer with all the phony phone charges removed. History. I did not have to pay for them.

I felt like hugging her, but instead just thanked her a dozen times and complimented her company's foresight and graciousness and shook hands with all the porters in the vicinity and told someone who was just checking in what a handsome hat she was wearing and then danced Fred Astaire-like out to my waiting taxi, dispensing lavish tips to everyone I encountered on the way. Happy ending.

But here are a couple of additional lessons worth considering:

1) Sure, I had been stupid and I really was responsible for those phone charges, but what kind of hotel charges $1 for a five-second local phone call? (Well, many kinds of hotels, in fact -- but this certainly inspires me to check my hotel's phone billing procedures more closely in the future.)

2) It pays to ask if you think something's wrong. When I realized that Eudora had done me in, I was tempted to timidly eat the charges -- but that just seemed unfair. Why should I pay so much for calls I hadn't intended to make? And this applies to everything: If you don't like your room, ask to be moved to another. If you see a charge on your bill that you can't account for, challenge it. If your filet isn't done well enough, send it back. If the dry cleaner didn't get that stain off your suit, let it know. It's a lesson I keep having to learn over and over and over, but you don't get something taken care of unless you speak out about it.

One more thing: Now that I've thoroughly humbled myself in front of all of you, and hopefully taught you a valuable lesson about turning off your computer and your e-mail program in your hotel room when you're not using it, I'd like to ask you one last question: Do you have a stupid traveler trick from your past that you'd be willing to share?

If you do, tell me. I'll be happy to share your hard-won lessons anonymously, if you so desire. The important thing is that we can all learn from one another's mistakes.

And if you tell me your worst stupid traveler trick, I'll tell you about my other, much more memorable travel faux pas: the Case of the Undocumented Daughter and the Dumbfounded Daddy.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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