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Number Please

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Number Please

A cell phone can be an actor's best friend -- well, if you don't count your human pals. Instant connectivity to your agents, no matter where you are, and a tax deduction at the end of the year? Nothing could be sweeter. Deducting your actual best friend? Not so easy. But you may feel less warmly toward your electronic buddy if you make even a few directory-assisted calls and discover exorbitant charges tacked onto your bill.

But mobile-service carriers, ever on the lookout for new sources of revenue, have made the cost of using directory assistance expensive for the service that's offered: up to $2 a query. You can avail yourself of several excellent directory-assistance services -- free beyond the cost of making a regular phone call -- and another option that costs no more than sending a text message.

If you've never tried 1-800-FREE411 (800-373-3411), now's the time. It's great, though there are a couple of catches that some might consider a cost: You have to listen to two 15-second ads before you get the number you're looking for. And it's all computerized -- no live operator -- so if you don't speak distinctly or it's a bit noisy when you're searching for your old friend Bojidara Kopatchinskaja, those diction lessons you took will come in handy.

You'll listen to 20 seconds of ads to use AT&T's free operator service, 1-800-YellowPages (800-935-5697). It offers residential listings as well as business listings, and it easily bests the free competition; when the virtual operator couldn't understand me, I was connected to an operator who politely gave me the number -- and it was still a free call.

Google also offers free directory assistance, through 1-800-GOOG411 (800-466-4411), with no ads, plus a wonderful option that gives the street address of the business you're looking for. Still, without a live operator to intervene, it took several tries in my crispest English to locate the Best Buy I wanted, because the service kept trying to send me to another store in the wrong area. When it worked, though, it found the information quickly. The service has yet to offer residential listings.

Google has another option, however: text messaging. Send a text message to Google at 46645 with whatever information you have (like "Screen Actors Guild" and "Hollywood"), and you'll get a text reply with the phone number and address. If it's a business with several locations in that area, like Best Buy, you'll be sent information for all the stores in the area. You don't need Internet access on your phone for this, just the ability to send and receive text messages. Like Google's free directory number, this option can find businesses only.

If you have a Web-enabled phone, such as Apple's iPhone ($399), you can have Internet access at your constant disposal as part of your service package, eliminating the need to call an operator. But Web access doesn't come cheap; it's an extra $15 - $45 a month, which suddenly makes a call to the operator seem like a bargain.

Paul Haber can be reached at editorpaul@gmail.com.

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