The “I Don’t Care” Collect Call Scam

The invention of cell phones changed telecommunications forever. If you look back in time to before their widespread popularity, you’d see a number of things that are either disappearing rapidly at this very minute or no longer exist at all. Payphones, for example, were once everywhere—on street corners and outside businesses, waiting for you at rest stops along highways. Long-distance phone calls were also priced higher than local ones, and the longer the distance, the longer the per-minute fee.

Perhaps the biggest difference from days before the cell phone were “collect calls.” When calling “collect,” the caller wouldn’t pay; instead, the phone company would charge the person being called. For most of the United States’ collect call history, business giant AT&T ruled the phone industry generally; not only was AT&T the nation’s largest long-distance provider by far—it was also a monopoly in most cases until regulators broke it up in 1982. But even after that happened, AT&T was probably the provider of your collect call services — even if you didn’t know it. For decades afterward, the easiest way to make a collect call was to dial zero for the operator, and AT&T was almost always the company for which the operator worked, As a result, AT&T became the go-to company when making a collect call.

In the 1990s, though, regulators stepped in. In some areas, operators were required to ask consumers which long-distance company they wanted to use to place your collect call, in hopes of encouraging more competition among long-distance providers. The most common answer was still “AT&T” but it wasn’t the only answer. Some collect callers were simply indifferent to who provided the long-distance service—the callers themselves weren’t footing the bill, after all. In a very honest moment, many of them would simply reply that they didn’t care or that it didn’t matter.

And to a small company in Texas, that answer proved profitable.

In 1996, People magazine shared the story of a Dallas-area company named KTNT Communications. KTNT was one of hundreds of Texas-based companies registered as a long-distance provider for collect calls. If you were a dialer who didn’t care which company connected your call, KTNT shouldn’t have been at the top of the list: for a three-minute Houston-to-Dallas call, AT&T charged just under $5; For the same call, KTNT charged $7.50. And yet, in many cases, the person you were calling ended up paying KTNT. Why? Because KTNT opened subsidiary companies named “I Don’t Know,” “It Doesn’t Matter,” “I Don’t Care,” “Whatever,” Anyone is OK,” and even “No Me Importa” When the operator asked a caller what long distance provider to use, a response matching one of those phrases would make KTNT some money.

The operator wouldn’t just connect your call using these creatively named subsidiaries, however. KTNT president Dennis Dees told the Associated Press that the practice “was not deceptive at all,” as KTNT instructed local telephone companies. to inform callers that they were being connected via a company with the same name as their response. The AP tested this claim and found that typically, the operator would verify unprompted that, yes, they wanted to use the company called, “I Don’t Care” (or whichever company they accidentally chose). But it didn’t have much of an impact on KTNT’s revenues, as callers would typically just agree to whatever the operator was saying. The scheme made KTNT quite a bit of money—before the cell phone made collect calls virtually obsolete, at least.

Bonus fact: One person who probably didn’t make a lot of collect calls? Frank Sinatra. On December 8, 1963, his then nineteen-year-old son, Frank Sinatra Jr., was kidnapped. The kidnappers negotiated a ransom for his release but would only talk to Frank Sr., and only if the latter were using a payphone. Frank Jr. was ultimately released unharmed (and the criminals were apprehended and convicted), but Frank Sr. carried the memory of the traumatic event with him from that point on, and, wanting to be sure he could use a payphone whenever necessary, kept ten dimes in his pocket for the rest of his life—and beyond. He is buried with a dollar’s worth of dimes.

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