BOSTON (AP) _ During the tough teen-age years, kids often reach out for help, but police say some of those who call telephone talk lines become victims of criminals capitalizing on their vulnerability.
Since the expensive ″chat lines″ began about two years ago, parents have battled their children over spiraling phone bills. But now three Massachusetts men face charges of raping a 14-year-old Hopedale girl they enticed to run away from home and people are wondering if a more serious threat may be afoot.
″We have a lot of troubled teens and it’s discouraging,″ said Nancy Arguello, a manager at a local talk line company. ″If a guy is smart enough to get a girl to believe he’s nice, there’s not much we can do. Some of them can be very clever and unfortunately girls fall into the trap.″
″It’s a big problem and getting bigger,″ said Patrolman Richard Mank, who has managed the Hopedale case and spoken with other police departments about similar incidents.
The trio has allegedly made contact with at least eight teen-agers in recent months, Mank said, offering them reassurance and a safe place to go should the teens want to run away from home.
″Sick people are using these kids. They make friends with them and listen for the ones who want to run away,″ he said. ″I would caution the parents to listen to their kids so they don’t go to strangers.″
Of 40 million party line calls logged by New England Telephone over a 2 1/2 -year period, at least 10 percent were made by those who dial services like XBT Telecom’s ″Talkabout″ teen line, a group conversation designed for people under age 16, said John Johnson, a spokesman for the telephone company.
″Talkabout is an entertainment service. It is not and never has been designed or advertised as a threatening or abusive type of thing,″ said XBT spokesman Allan Fitzmaurice.
Moderators are required to keep conversations from getting too personal and disconnect abusive callers, said Bernice McIntyre, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission.
But no federal guidelines have been set down and the degree to which moderators enforce talk line standards can vary.
Arguello, who trains and manages moderators for XBT, said regardless of how well prepared mediators are, party lines can get out of control.
″Everyone picks up the phone at night and goes crazy for some reason,″ Arguello said. ″All the creeps come out of the woodwork. You disconnect them and they keep coming back, even angrier than before.″
Moderators often listen in on 20 to 30 lines at a time, she said, making it impossible to keep tabs on all the conversations.
″It’s been our policy to discourage callers from meeting and exchanging phone numbers and we cut people off all the time,″ Fitzmaurice said.
Apparently in the case of the 14-year-old in Hopedale, three men, all over the age of 16, allegedly wooed her without discouragement.
Two men were arrested and arraigned late last month on various charges, including rape, kidnapping, contributing to delinquency and abusing a child under 16 years old. An arrest warrant has been issued for a third man wanted on similar charges.