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Phone Cards Muscle In On The Stamps Scene

February 24, 1995

HONG KONG (AP) _ Dragan Udovicic didn’t think much of his neighbors. ``They shouldn’t be here with us. They should be separate,″ he said.

Udovicic, a London stamp dealer, was referring to the phone card merchants in the booths behind him at a trade fair in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Phone cards, also known as debit cards or telecards, are designed to work in coinless payphones, or to store prepaid telephone time.

Like stamps, they come from all over the world in every imaginable design, and as the rarest begin to fetch five-figure prices, they are muscling in on the stamp and coin market.

It’s easy to see why some philatelic purists might turn up their noses. Phone cards are made of plastic. They carry advertising. They can be gaudy (scantily clad women), syrupy (cuddly puppies) or gimmicky (O.J. Simpson’s mugshot).

That’s not all. Like the Internet and cable TV, phone cards reflect the deregulatory spirit of the 1990s. Only governments can issue stamps and coins, but anybody with a bit of cash can design a card, buy call units from a phone company, and run off an instant collector’s item.

``Stamps are something that is forever,″ said Udovicic. ``The phone cards are made yesterday. They are unofficial. They have no real value and people are just wasting their money.″

The phone card dealers across the aisle tended to react with the superior smiles of people who know they’ve made the big time. As the official banner made clear, this was a stamps, coins, AND PHONE CARDS fair.

``One hundred years ago no one wanted to drive cars; they preferred horses. Two hundred years ago people didn’t want paper currency,″ said Michael Giessen, a German phone card dealer.

``But your grandchildren won’t know stamps or coins. They will only know stored-value cards. They’ll use them to get on the schoolbus, to buy their school lunch, to phone home.″

Because a phone card can promote anything from Coca Cola to your local pet food store, it is ``the ultimate advertising tool,″ said George A. Fredericks, an exhibitor from Coral Springs, Fla.

``If you put your image on the card, every time somebody looks at it they think of your business.″

Some cards are made for advertising _ classic Coca Cola ads are a big hit _ while others commemorate events like the Democratic Party convention. And then there are those which are produced simply on a gamble that their design will appeal to collectors.

For instance, New York dealer Lori Porreca designed a card featuring Marilyn Monroe and had 2,500 printed. Each carried 25 call units. The cards cost $5.65 each to manufacture, and retailed to collectors for $12.50. Two years later their value has risen to $20, she said.

Porreca started out collecting stamps and matchbooks, and got hooked on phone cards four years ago.

``It just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and people started to call me and they wanted to buy them and before I knew it I started to sell them,″ she said. She now has her own phone card company.

The first phone cards went into circulation in Italy in 1976, and have since been issued in virtually every country.

They range in value from a few dollars to what is believed to be the present record _ $27,000 for an early Japanese phone card. Those pioneering Italian cards are worth $1,000 apiece, according to New York collector Alex Rendon.

Collecting is advanced in countries where phone cards are most widely used, with Japan topping the list.

``The United States was really the last country to get into this,″ said Rendon. ``Every little island in the Caribbean, for example, has been using prepaid telephone cards for seven or eight years, even longer.″

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