A computer-generated telephone call tells an 11-year-old boy he can win a trip and a prize if he dials a 900 long-distance number and answers the question: "What is the name of Batman's car?"
He gets confused when he calls the number and keeps dialing repeatedly. He gets nothing. Mom gets a $120 phone bill.A TV ad asks kids to call Santa Claus using a 900 number. The callers then are told that Santa is in the bathroom, so they should call back later. No Santa. Big phone bills.
Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., cited these and other "horror stories" Thursday while urging the House telecommunications subcommittee to adopt his bill to impose strict federal regulations on the burgeoning 900-number audiotext industry.
Gordon said "$120 is not as much as some have lost on these services, but it is more than many people have for such nonsense."
He said it was ironic that the telephone company involved in the Batman case, in which the answer was "the Batmobile," had a policy of not carrying services directed at children.
"The attitude seems to be, `Policy or no policy, if there is money to be made, let it slide,"' Gordon said.
There is big money to be made in 900 calling, said the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. He said the industry had revenues of $480 million in 1989.
Most of the audiotext industry is legitimate, witnesses said. But they said companies that impose excessive charges and use deceptive ads for games of chance, sex talk, easy credit pitches and chats with Santa Claus are creating the prospect that a few renegades will kill off a valuable public service.
Markey cited examples of consumers being duped into calling a 900 number "to obtain a pre-approved credit card or to claim nonexistent prizes, only to receive a message to call yet another 900 number at a cost of up to $25 per call."
Gordon's bill, among other things, would require free blocking of 900 numbers; free introductory messages describing the service; clearly stated charges and billing procedures; and a one-time opportunity to stop charges incurred through misunderstandings or unauthorized use.