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FCC Aims to Curb 800-Number Abuses : Consumers: Regulators unveil a plan to stop unwarranted billing for mostly adult services.

August 03, 1994|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators took the first step Tuesday toward preventing consumers from being wrongly billed for calls to information services.

The Federal Communications Commission unveiled a plan to stem the abuses after receiving 2,000 complaints in the first six months of this year involving such charges, mostly for adult-oriented services carried on 800 numbers, said Richard Metzger, deputy chief of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau.

The problem involves only a small portion of the information services industry--companies that use 800 numbers not only to deliver services, from sports scores to psychic readings, but also charge for the call.

The vast majority of information services use 900 numbers. Virtually all 800 numbers are toll-free--unless the company, taking advantage of an exception in a 1992 law, somehow got the caller's permission for the charge.

That's where the problem has cropped up, regulators said. In many instances, the caller, who may have agreed to the charge, wasn't the one who received the bill. Rather, the home or establishment from where the call was made got stuck with the charges because the local telephone company simply sent the bill there.

The proposal is one of those rare regulatory instances in which some local phone companies, prompted by customer complaints, want tougher federal rules.

"We're getting a lot of complaints from our customers," said Alan Ciamporcero, executive director of federal relations for Pacific Telesis Group. "It is very hard for us to separate legitimate ones (agreements between callers and information service companies) from not-legitimate ones."

Under the FCC's new plan, local phone companies have to make sure they are billing the caller. They must verify that a written contract has been entered between the caller and the information service company before they bill for 800-number calls.

The plan would also require the local phone company to break out charges for these calls from long-distance charges. It would also have to list the name, address and number of the information service provider; the type of service offered, and the date, time and duration of the call.

Plagued by customer complaints over 800-number charges, Bell Atlantic Corp. in June stopped billing for these calls, spokesman Michel Daley said.

Metzger said many of the FCC's complaints are from hotels, colleges and universities and parents--all of whom were billed for calls they didn't make.

Parents were particularly frustrated. Unlike 900 numbers, 800 numbers cannot be blocked by the head of a household. So there is no safety net for parents whose child might surreptitiously make an 800-number call.

FCC attorney Robert Spangler said people usually end up paying for the calls out of fear of losing their telephone service, a ploy some information service companies use to get people to pay, he said.

"It's amazing to look at the number of complaints where a person says, 'I agreed to pay this because I don't want to lose my phone service,' " he said.

The FCC's plan is open to comment by industry groups and could be modified further. The ultimate plan is subject to another commission vote before becoming final.

Regulators said the plan, if adopted, will mean more work for local telephone companies, which are responsible for handling billing from information service companies.

One practice that appears to be on the rise could thwart any verification process, Daley said. Some information service calls are showing up as a regular 10-digit long-distance number, rather than an 800 number through which the service is actually provided. Local phone companies can't tell that those charges need to be verified.

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