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Computerized Phone Calls Not Only Are Irritating, They Can Cost You

October 4, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ There’s a new twist in the telemarketing business: a computer calls you and then sends a bill if you don’t hang up fast enough.

It’s called ″collect 900,″ after the nearly 70,000 900-number phone lines that are generating hundreds of millions in profits for their owners and conversation and controversy around the nation.

But they really aren’t 900 lines, which require customers to dial an 11- digit number. All you have to do in this case is have a phone.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules that forbid telephone companies from carrying such calls, effectively putting an end to them. Phone companies already had refused to handle the billing for most of these lines.

The regulations, crafted to address a number of consumer gripes about the 900 industry, will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, probably late November. Industry groups, working hard to clean up a badly tarnished image, supported the FCC’s action.

″We didn’t think that was an unfair setup in any case,″ said Steve Metalitz of the Information Industry Association.

Albert Angel, a Miami communications lawyer and chairman of the National Association for Information Services, said he knew little about the collect services, but has heard ″vague and nebulous horror stories″ about them.

Neither knew the operator of such a service.

The 900 collect lines work fairly simply. You get a call with an offer for information, a service or merchandise - all for a price. All you have to do to get a bill is hang onto your phone.

You’re told that if you don’t want to pay, just press a number or hang up.

The trouble is, if you don’t press a number - or the right number - or if you don’t hang up fast enough, you get a bill.

″You could see how unfair that could be if you weren’t home and your answering machine took the call,″ Metalitz said.

The computers that place the calls don’t know if it’s you or your answering machine on the line. Of course, the answering machine can’t press the appropriate number to refuse the charge, and it probably won’t hang up as long as the computer is talking.

The FCC said it was acting to ″eliminate the practice of assuming the party telephoned will accept the charges.″

FCC officials said it also creates a problem when children or older adults answer the phone and don’t hang up quickly enough. In fact, if you hang up when the computer tells you to press a number to refuse the charge, you still might get a bill.

That’s what happened to 3,700 residents of three areas in Colorado: Pueblo, Canon City and El Paso County.

Residents of those areas last November received a phone solicitation to buy a bracelet showing support for the U.S. troops serving in the Persian Gulf. Those who hung up on the computer were billed about $3.85 for the call. Several thousand answering machines were charged, state officials said.

The Colorado attorney general’s office obtained refunds from the company that handled the phone promotion, Phone Base Systems of Vienna, Va., under a Colorado law that forbids the use of autodialing systems.

Investigators in other states also looked into incidents involving Phone Base Systems and the company that offered the bracelets, Voices for Freedom of McLean, Va.

A call to Phone Base on Thursday was not returned.

″No one should be charged for something unless they initiate the action to make the call,″ Metalitz said.

Industry officials don’t like the term ″collect 900,″ because it just creates another problem in what for them has been a public relations nightmare. Besides the FCC action, Congress is considering strict regulations for the industry and state legislatures have been slapping on their own restrictions.

Consumers have complained of misleading sales pitches and high phone charges associated with the 900 toll lines.

″It’s not a mainstream service at all,″ Lisa Broderick, chairman of Talisman Communications, a New York-based company that operates 900 services, said of the collect lines.

Broderick said she used to joke about a 900 service that made collect calls instead of receiving them - before she found out that such lines actually existed.

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