Michael Murphy received a postcard saying he qualified for credit card. All he had to do was dial a 900 number, the advertisement said.
The East Baltimore man picked up the phone, not knowing he was being victimized by one of the schemes that consumer advocates say have invaded the 900 industry, in which phone companies act as billing agents for other companies providing information services.
Murphy dialed the number, and a recording told him to call another number for further information.
When he did, another recording instructed him to punch in a code listed on the postcard. Murphy tried -- and tried -- and each time the computer cut him off. Murphy wound up dialing the 900 number six times before giving up.
What Murphy didn't know was that every time he dialed the 900 number, a $29.95 charge was being added to his phone bill. And he didn't find out until his C&P Telephone bill arrived. It showed he owed $187.50, including $7.80 for the initial call, in charges billed by US Sprint.
"It was quite a surprise," he says. "Surprises like that you don't want, especially when you come home at 5 o'clock."
His story had a happy ending: C&P Telephone removed the charge after he complained, and his long-distance company, US Sprint, eventually closed its lines to the purveyor of credit cards.
But other callers are spending millions on 900-number ripoffs, consumer advocates say.
"The 900 pay-per-call service has emerged as one of the most significant vehicles for consumer fraud in recent history," says a recent report by attorneys general from nine states. As the industry has grown, so has the number of "false, misleading, deceptive or otherwise illegal 900 promotions and programs."
"All that a deceptive information-provider has to do is induce the consumer to dial a 900 number and the charge automatically applies," the report points out. "The fact that charges are billed by the telephone company adds legitimacy and muscle to the bargain."
Problems with 900 calls are one of the top two areas of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, says Mary Beth Richards, an enforcement official with the FCC.
And the Maryland attorney general's office has been receiving an increasing number of gripes from people citing "outrageous" 900 practices, says Rebecca Bowman, head of the complaint unit in the Consumer Protection Division.
People's main complaints, Bowman says, are that they didn't get enough information at the time they placed the call, or they didn't get what they expected for their money.
"A lot of what people get is what they could get from other sources for free," Bowman says. In some cases, such as Murphy's, consumers have to make a string of 900 calls, racking up a charge with each one, with dubious results.
Industry spokesmen say that most 900-number companies -- known in the trade as information providers -- are legitimate, providing consumers with everything from stock-market reports to used-car prices to computer trouble-shooting to legal advice. There's even a 900 number for people interested in getting into the 900 business.
But consumer advocates say the industry is so new and growing so fast that the lack of regulation has allowed too many shady operators to amass huge profits while providing little or nothing of value.
The report by the nine attorneys general says credit card and loan offers, often aimed at people who can't get credit, lead the list of consumer complaints.
Postcard solicitations or TV commercials saying "bad credit -- no problem!" are pitched to consumers who then have to call a 900 number, or a series of 900 numbers that rack up more phone charges.
In one case, a Baltimore man called a 900 number after a TV commercial promised a bonus of $100 to anyone who had been %% rejected for a credit card. He ended up with a $38 charge on his phone bill -- and never got the credit card or the $100.
Sometimes consumers get no more than a list of banks that offer secured cards, which require a deposit equal to the credit limit. Sometimes they get a catalog card, good only for merchandise sold through the company's catalog at inflated prices. Sometimes they get nothing.
Other solicitations target credit-worthy customers with offers of low-rate credit cards. In these cases, the consumer usually gets no card but only a list of banks that offer them, meaning the consumer must apply for one like anyone else.
As for loan offers, callers often get nothing more than lists of lenders. Or the caller is told that a fee must be paid in advance, as a Dundalk woman recently discovered.
An out-of-state outfit promised her a loan if she paid a $250 "processing fee." She did, but her loan was "delayed," and she could get no further information because the 900 number kept cutting her off.
The Maryland Office of Consumer Credit did manage to get her $250 refunded, but she was still out the 900 charges.
Sweepstakes, games and contests are another source of many complaints, says the report by the attorneys general.