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HIGH LIFE : Dial-a-Dilemma : Youths Ring Up Sex, Money Issues With 976 Numbers

July 30, 1988|MARK TOROK and STUART RHEA | Youth News Service

Some years ago, young people who wanted to have some fun on the telephone would make prank calls. A common prank: dialing a number and asking if the answerer had Prince Albert in a can. (Prince Albert is a tobacco product usually sold in a can.) If the respondent said yes, the prankster would say, "Well, you better let him out," laugh and hang up.

Old-fashioned telephone fun is not so common anymore--instead, dialing 976 phone numbers for entertainment is big business. Today, teen-agers can dial-a-garden, dial-a-joke, dial-a-prayer, dial-a-scary story, dial-a-horoscope, dial-a-Santa and dial a wide range of other services.

Today, there are two basic forms of 976 phone fun. One is "interactive," such as party and gab lines, where people talk with one another or a whole group of people on the line. The other is prerecorded phone messages.

In general, high school students say their primary reason for dialing 976 numbers is curiosity.

"Sure, I would call just to find out what they (the messages) said. I think that is definitely why so many kids call--just out of curiosity," said Chris DeBruler, a senior at Guilford High School in Rockford, Ill.

For Tristram Miller, a 17-year-old senior at Laguna Beach High School, dialing 976 numbers is a convenience.

"I call the surf line maybe four times a week to see how the waves are at various beaches," he said. "It's a really good thing because it's a real pain to get to the beach and find no waves whatsoever."

Although accurate statistics cannot be kept on the number of minors who use prerecorded message services, Youth News Service talked with teen-agers nationwide and found two consistent concerns: Many teen-agers are running up large phone bills at their unsuspecting parents' expense, and teen-agers are dialing sexually suggestive message services.

Horror stories about minors running up huge phone bills are not difficult to uncover. One national magazine reported that an Oakland teen-ager ran up a party line phone bill of $4,168.38 in one month. A YNS reporter interviewed a Chicago teen-ager who used message and party lines so often that his parents received a phone bill one month of more than $2,000. Another Chicago teen-ager ran up her mother's phone bill by $1,500 using various phone services.

Missy and Tammy, sisters who attend Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, used to call the dial-a-horoscope line every day to find out what the stars had in store for them, their boyfriends, their brother and their brother's girlfriend. They weren't aware of the cost--then 90 cents a call--until their parents got the phone bill at the end of the month and put an end to their stargazing.

Dialing prerecorded messages, some of which charge a flat rate ranging from 50 cents to $9.95 a call and some of which charge by the minute, is generally a highly profitable business for both the message sponsor and the local phone company, said Web Chamberlin, spokesman for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone in Washington. In many states, local phone companies and sponsors split the profits of message services.

"It doesn't take a lot of capital or assets to get into the market," Chamberlin said. All a sponsor needs is a place to set up the telephone equipment and a mechanism that allows numerous callers to reach the service. The sponsor also must abide by the rules of the local public service commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

Parents have complained to phone companies about their children running up large phone bills without their permission. Local phone companies have responded to parental complaints in a variety of ways. In Washington, for example, a C&P Telephone rule went into effect last summer requiring all 976 phone messages to tell customers the message's cost at the beginning of the call, giving them a chance to hang up without being billed.

An even hotter topic than high phone bills is the fact that young people have access to sex message services that some label pornographic.

One student said someone he knew dialed one such phone service from the teacher's lounge during summer school just to see what it was like.

Brent, who attends El Modena High School, said two years ago that a dial-a-porn service was being contacted every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. by a "phantom" caller on his family's phone line. When his parents confronted their children--Brent, his three older brothers and two younger sisters--all six denied making the calls.

Most of these dial-a-porn services contain the voice of an excited young woman who invites the caller to engage in sex acts with her and then vividly describes the action, the New York Times reported.

No one knows exactly how listening to sex messages affects young people, but most agree that they are detrimental to some degree.

FCC regulations require that any company running an obscene message service must ensure that children under 18 have no access to it through devices such as scramblers, access codes and prepayment by credit card. The FCC, applying a Supreme Court test, considers material to be obscene if it depicts sexual acts in a patently offensive way, appealing to the prurient interest of an average person and lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Pressure from anti-pornography groups and complaints about access by children who run up huge bills listening to pornographic messages has been reducing the areas in which recorded dial-a-porn services may operate.

Joanna Brooks, a senior at Foothill High School, and Stephanie McCurdy, a senior at Laguna Beach High School, contributed to this story.

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