Horror stories are legion about children or teens who succumb to advertising and call 900-prefix phone numbers, paying rates that can run as high as several dollars a minute to listen to stories or sales pitches. And their surprised parents get the sometimes staggering bill. But youngsters aren't alone. Use of the 900 numbers on behalf of various scams has taken in plenty of adults as well.
The pay-per-call industry has enjoyed what some call phenomenal growth in recent years. Many legitimate companies with 900 numbers use the service to offer valid information. The industry grosses an estimated $1 billion a year.Unfortunately, the 900-number industry often features sleaze and scams as well, preys on children to the tune of $10 million a year, and according to some prosecutors, has emerged as "one of the most significant vehicles for consumer fraud in recent history."
Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the states are all scrambling to put tighter controls on the uses made of 900 numbers.
A bill just approved by a U.S. House of Representatives telecommunications subcommittee would require a taped message at the beginning of any phone call with a 900-number prefix. The message would include the per-minute cost of the call, an explanation on what information is being provided, a warning that parental consent is needed for children and a notice that no charge will be incurred by hanging up before the end of the recorded message.
The proposed legislation would also require phone companies to keep 900-number charges separate from regular long-distance charges and would prevent their cutting off phone service for failure to pay 900-number charges. The bill also provides for free blocking of access to make 900-number calls as a way of allowing parents to keep children from making such calls.
Those latter options already exist in Utah. The Public Service Commission in 1987 issued regulations allowing Utah phone customers to block 900 toll numbers. The PSC also forbids Utah-based phone companies from disconnecting service for unpaid 900 numbers and requires the phone firms to provide a one-time option to customers to have 900-number billings forgiven. Clearly, Utah is way ahead of Congress in this regard.
The Federal Trade Commission also is cracking down on television commercials aimed at getting children to make 900-number calls. Some companies have agreed to FTC guidelines, but others have balked and are being taken to court.
Certainly there are issues of free speech involved and it probably is impossible to have a system that would completely eliminate any danger of fraud. But clear guidelines and the ideas being considered by Congress would help a lot.
The best protection against 900-number fraud is self-protection. The Utah attorney general's office has begun a campaign to help phone customers understand the potential risks of dialing 900 numbers and to beware of tactics that offer free gifts for making such calls or that are aimed at children. And users must understand that they will be paying for the information or sales pitch at a fairly high price per minute.