Sorry Wrong Number

Directory Assistance Is Sometimes Anything But

It used to be hard to get away from Alcatraz.

Now Patty Hazelhoff says it's hard getting to it. "Can I have the number for Alcatraz Tours and Reservations?" she requested via her car phone.

Hazelhoff first made that directory assistance request a few weeks ago. And the only reason CBS News Correspondent Steve Hartman is mentioning it is because at the other end of the line 48 Hours' camera was rolling. Hartman reports on just what type of assistance is served up these days by directory assistance.

Instead of connecting Hazelhoff to the Rock, the operator put her through to a restaurant, the Alcatraz Café.

Manager Steve Ramos said it happens all the time.

And it's not just his problem; every year nationwide about 450 million information calls result in dis-information. It's gotten so bad consumer advocates say 411 is in a 911 situation.

A request for the Empire State Building might beg the question: Is that in Washington?

So Hartman even spent a day in operator training at Verizon Communications in Long Beach, Calif. "I'm from CBS News, and I'm here to find out why you guys give me the wrong number sometimes," he said.

They wouldn't let him take any real calls. But he did get a feel for the system, he said.

"Have a good day," Hartman said as he learned.

Teacher Greg Henderson coached: "No. 'Have a good day.' You want them to feel like you mean it."

Hartman found what may be some cracks.

    Henderson: "There's no need to..."

    Hartman: "Verify?"

    Henderson: "Exactly."

For example, Henderson explained that when someone asks for a name, such as Carl Anderson, and a Carl Anderson pops up on the screen, you give out that number and move on, you don't double check the address.

Hartman showed his training tape to Addie Brinkley, who worked 40 years as an AT&T operator, just to get some insight.

"He's really opposed to verifying," Hartman said.

"Because that's taking time," Brinkley offered.

Most operators have to take three calls a minute, she said. And with companies charging up to a $1.45 per call, the money gets serious. Sometimes operators just give you the first number that pops up, just to be done with you.

Hartman struggled as a Verizon trainee to give out correct phone numbers. And as the Verizon teacher once said to Hartman in class, "I thought I passed by once and you sent a wrong number."

And Hartman acknowledges that actually it happened more than once and indeed that this type of mistake can obviously happen to anyone.

Yet Verizon's Laverne Davis boasted, "Ninety-eight to 100 percent of the numbers are accurate, correct numbers."

So Hartman put her to the test: After asking for the number of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, she got the correct number.

But Hartman remarks: "That seems like an easy one.

Whose number would he like to ask for?

CBS.

"Let me have the number for the news, please," Davis requested.

The room got noticeably warmer.

Russian Connection
Click here to find out more about the Russian Tea Room, where Dan Rather appeared in this 48 Hours broadcast.

It was not the news division.

"Thank you," she said. "That falls within the 2 percent. We're not perfect, but we border on it."

In Davis' defense, part of the problem can be poor databases. It turns out the CBS number was wrong in the computer.

And one other footnote: Patty Hazelhoff eventually did get the right number for Alcatraz Tours.

"Thank you for calling," a recorded announcement answered. "We apologize, but our automated information service is currently unavailable."

Well, there's another story for Hartman.

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