Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pay-per-Call Services Ringing Up Lots of Flak

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pay-per-Call Services Ringing Up Lots of Flak

Article excerpt

TELECOMMUNICATIONS policy often ties American lawmakers in knots, but there's one area where virtually all of them can agree:

Pay-per-call services - those "900" numbers you see advertised on TV - urgently need regulation.

Congress is reeling from a storm of consumer protest.

"This is the No. 1 consumer complaint in America," says Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transporta-tion committee, which oversees telecommunications policy. He expects the Senate to act by the Thanksgiving recess.

"We'll get a bill this session," adds Rep. Michael Oxley (R) of Ohio, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee. From sports to porn

Pay-per-call services encourage consumers to dial a number with area code 900 to receive information or entertainment. The calls range from talk lines to sports information, job leads, credit card applications, and telephone sex services. Charges appear on customers' phone bills and range from under a dollar to $75 or more.

The problem is that this very young industry, which started in the late 1980s, has also played host to a number of scams.

"A number of the ... complaints are about unfair and deceptive trade practices," says Mary Beth Richards, chief of the enforcement division of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). For the past year and a half, 900-number fraud and abuse has been either the No. 1 or No. 2 consumer complaint there.

For example:

*A South Carolina woman dialed up a service advertising a Visa card to people who called the 900 number. She was charged nearly $40 but, instead of getting a credit card, she got a book telling her how to apply for one.

*A Wisconsin service promised to help people find $17-an-hour union jobs, but those who called were told merely how to fill out a job application.

Other complaints involve such things as switching consumers from a toll-free 800 number to a pay-per-call 900 number without their knowledge. In one celebrated case, a television Santa Claus urged children to hold their phone receivers up to the TV, which emitted the dial tones to connect to a pay-per-call service. Congressmen and senators are still talking about that one.

"It's happened once," concedes Peter Brennan, director of development at Tele-Publishing Inc., an audiotext service bureau in Boston. But "it won't happen again."

Late last month, the FCC adopted stricter rules for the long-distance companies that carry pay-per-call services. …

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