When you call a company's customer service line, you often hear the words "this call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes," at the beginning of the conversation.

Large companies routinely record customer service calls to both train their staff and to protect themselves should disputes arise. However, if the company is the only party with access to the tape, a consumer has less leverage in a dispute. For example, if the tape shows the consumer is right, the company could say that particular call didn't get recorded.

Can you, as a consumer, legally record a conversation with a customer service or sales representative, and if so, how do you do it?

The answer to the first question is yes. In fact, 38 states allow what is known as "one party consent" recording. That means if one party to the call -- such as yourself -- consents to it being recorded, then it's okay.

However, since you don't know what state the customer service representative happens to be in, it's never a good idea to covertly tape a call. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington require all parties to the conversation to give their consent. Covertly taping a conversation when one of the parties is in one of those states is illegal.

To keep yourself within the law, begin your call exactly the way the company does, by informing the party to whom you are speaking that they are being recorded. In fact, here are some familiar phrases that have been modified for your use:

• "To create an accurate record of our conversation, our call may be monitored and recorded."

• "In order to ensure excellent customer service, this call may be monitored or recorded."

• "To insure the highest level of customer service, this call may be monitored and recorded."

• "Our call may be monitored and recorded to insure quality of service."

Lawyers at some of America's largest corporations have approved these phrases. If they're legal for them, then they are legal for you.

Recording the call

To record both sides of a telephone conversation, you are going to have to make a small investment. While software can turn your computer into a recording device, you will need some way to connect your telephone line to your computer, and this interface is not standard equipment on most PCs.

If you want a digital system, expect to pay $200 or more. For example, the USB Phone 2 PC Basic system costs $195.95 and is fairly easy to install and use, but is a Windows-only system. You plug your telephone into the interface, which connects to one of your computer's USB ports.

For those who want to spend less, the P5945 Micro Phone recorder is an analog system that accomplishes the same objective for about $80. The device looks much like a micro-cassette dictating recorder and uses micro-cassettes to record and store the audio. It has a telephone line input and does not connect to a computer.

Are either investments worthwhile? That's for the consumer to decide. But judging from the complaints received at ConsumerAffairs.com about disputes with customer service and sales representatives, maintaining an accurate record of your conversation might pay off.