Phony Collect Calls

Q. Sometimes when I have to call a friend or relative for a ride I find myself without change. So I call the operator and ask to make a collect call, and the name I give is a code. Like if I say that Luigi is calling, it means pick me up from the pizzeria, but if Wayne is calling it means pick me up from the hockey rink. And then my friend refuses to accept the call. Is this okay?

A. It can certainly be frustrating to have absolutely no way to get in touch with your ride. But the solution you've adopted, while used by many people, is not an ethical one. You are making unfair use of the telephone system as well as the operator's time.

While using the "ring" method, where four short rings signals that you need to be picked up, also makes unfair free use of the telephone system, at least it doesn't involve lying and doesn't cost the phone company much (though any amount of stealing is wrong). But using an operator is a significant burden on the phone company. Keep in mind that even in today's competitive market for phone services, the surcharge for an operator-assisted call is generally between one and two dollars.

The real message here is simply stated: For temptation, as for other ills, preventative medicine is the best cure. Remember to bring change with you, borrow change or a cell-phone from a friend, or memorize a calling card number. Even borrowing from a stranger, while it may be a bit embarrassing, is preferable to stealing from the phone company.

If all else fails, just call collect using your real name and have the other side accept the call. The aggregate cost of these calls over the entire year probably won't amount to more than a few dollars, which is a small price to pay for your integrity.