Ed O'Geese, a San Francisco window-washer, was in for a shock when he opened his phone bill last January. The bill included 100 pages of "vendor charges" listing 1,977 calls at a total cost of $1,125.
Investigation revealed that O'Geese's 10-year-old grandson had spent a good part of his Christmas holiday trying to win a prize by correctly answering a trivia quiz offered by a dial-it service. The youngster had called and re-called the "976" number and punched in his responses to the questions on his grandfather's push-button telephone.
O'Geese was not alone in suffering from a swollen phone bill. "Dial-a-Santa" programs advertised on children's television programs last December resulted in hundreds of complaints by outraged parents to Pacific Bell and the state Public Utilities Commission and produced a $50-million class-action lawsuit against Pacific Bell on behalf of 100,000 California children.
Even more heated was the reaction of these parents whose offspring had inflated family bills by dialing one purveyor of pornography at $2 a call:
- A California woman who was evicted by her roommate after her 17-year-old ran up $1,700 in "dial-a-porn" calls on the roommate's phone.
- A high school student, who ran up $1,850 in similar calls, which his parents required him to pay out of his college savings.
- A low-income woman, whose wheelchair-bound 9-year-old ran up a bill of $440 between last July 5 and Aug. 5. ("He's at home and bored," she said of her son's calling.)
While purveyors of telephone programming are providing a potentially vast source of easily tapped information as well as a welcome source of revenue to local phone companies that lease out their lines, the content and the cost of the programs--ranging from about 50 cents to $2 per call plus any toll charges--have created headaches for consumers and phone companies alike.
The California Public Utilities Commission is conducting an inquiry into what it calls the "information-access services" or "976" phenomenon, referring to the typical prefix on a dial-it program.
"The commission recognizes that this new source of revenue helps to offset rising rates for basic telephone service," it said in announcing the inquiry. But, the commission continued, the new service "is plagued by numerous serious problems"--among them, it said, a public unaccustomed to paying vendor charges, misleading ads and the possible exploitation of children, questionable program content, phone disconnections for failure to pay vendor charges and customers' difficulty in obtaining vendors' names and addresses from the local telephone company.
So far, the PUC, which cannot directly regulate the vendors, has ordered Pacific Bell to stop disconnecting service for non-payment of vendor charges and to make the names and addresses of vendors available, which the company had been protecting as "confidential."
Hearings on the "976" issue were held in San Francisco last month and move to Los Angeles this Tuesday through Friday; the commission is expected to act on its findings before the end of the year. At the same time, Pacific Bell has said that it plans to make blocking devices available to customers for a nominal one-time charge (reportedly about $5) to prevent calls to 976-prefix numbers.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and a congressional subcommittee are conducting their own hearings. The FCC in July, 1984, tried to limit adult-oriented programming to hours when young children are least likely to be unsupervised or awake, between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m., but a federal appeals court in New York overturned that as an infringement of free speech.
There are now more than 6,500 telephone-accessed information-entertainment programs available around the nation, part of the nation's fast-growing "dial-it" information industry--an outgrowth of the old Bell System's time-and-temperature service. Callers can dial up jokes, children's stories, advice on how to quit smoking, soap-opera updates, suggestive romances, clinical sex information and outright pornography. A push-button telephone can be transformed into a tiny computer terminal, enabling consumers to call up such specific information as a personalized horoscope or a stock quote, or to answer trivia questions. The potential exists to tap into databases of all kinds.
In Chicago, callers can "Dial-a-Trance" for a five-minute hypnosis session that mainly guides the caller through some deep breathing. Atlantans can get a listing of current mortgage rates offered by local lending institutions. In Miami, displaced New Yorkers longing for a little verbal abuse can "Dial-an-Insult," delivered in a familiar accent muttering something like: "You're so crooked that, when you die, they'll have to screw you into the ground."