Dialing for dollars

July 01, 1991

The 900-number market has become one the biggest scam in the country, attracting all manner of con artists. A two-part series last week by The Evening Sun's Georgia Marudas vividly documented a litany of promises at the end of a 900-line -- from credit cards to loan offers to free vacations -- many of which turned out to be little more than an enticement to people to call for information that, at best, was available elsewhere for free or at worst was entirely useless -- all at exorbitant rates.

There is nothing new in sharpsters fleecing the gullible. What is new, however, is government indifference toward such schemes, the form of deregulation. Now, with more than 1,300 900-numbers raking in a billion a year, there is neither oversight nor accountability. Moreover, the set-up itself militates against control: Just about anybody with anything to sell (or, in fact, nothing at all) can hook up with a service bureau that supplies computer services, marketing support and a link with a long-distance carrier. It is profitable all around. The vendor can set any rate at all for calls. And once a caller has been ensnared, the profit is made. No service ever has to be delivered. Worse, the service bureau, the long-distance carrier and the local company all get a cut of the profit.

Responding to complaints, the Federal Trade Commission has proposed regulations to combat phone fraud. It remains to be seen how successful the agency will be in the face of industry pressure. Nonetheless, Marudas' series showed there must be regulation of these buccaneer entrepreneurs.

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