Con Man's Delight

CARL T. ROWAN

November 17, 1992|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I knew that my wife Vivien couldn't get rich so easily when the facsimile check for $7,500 arrived at our house in October. The check stub said that Vivian (sic) Rowan was ''guaranteed to win one first prize of $7,500'' if she submitted her winning number before the deadline. She had been assigned ''the official prize claim number.''

Then I saw the first element of what has become one of the slimiest, most pervasive scams in America -- the suckering of people to make costly 1-900 telephone calls in pursuit of prizes they will never get.

The worthless check to ''Vivian Rowan'' was mailed from Boston, but signed by a ''Wm. Grovant,'' the ''prize claim attendant'' in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. The check stub said that for ''a real cashier's check, CALL 1-900-288-2227.'' There was a notation that each minute of the call would cost $3.98, and that each call would last an average of four minutes (thanks to a scheme in which the caller is kept dangling, pushing assorted touchtone buttons).

I called to claim my wife's prize and found that, for next to nothing, I had spent at least $15.92, which would be shared by the telephone company and these 1-900 frauds. AT&T tells my office that the telephone companies get billing and transmission fees, but the bulk of the money goes to the owners of the 900 numbers. What a con man's delight!

Before I could write a word about my one sucker call, I discovered that the 1-900 rip-off artists have a network. The word went forth that Vivian Rowan of Washington, D.C., is a patsy who calls back. Suddenly the ''National Award Center'' in Massapequa, New York, was writing to say ''A $5,000 CASHIERS CHECK WILL BE YOURS'' if she'd call its 1-900 ''hotline'' at a cost of $4.98 perminute, average of three minutes. The Silver/Gold/Cash Sweepstakes, sponsored by Freeland Marketing, Inc., of Las Vegas, sent two $7,500 certificates saying: ''It's really true! Your name has been submitted to the Awards Committee as a GUARANTEED AWARD RECIPIENT.'' All she had to do was make a $12 telephone call.

U.S. Direct Marketing of Riverdale, Utah, dangled a ''BRAND NEW CHRYSLER LEBARON OR $10,000 CASH'' before her. A Santa Ana, California, operation at 1 Jackpot Plaza suggested she'd won $5,600. Something called ACC, sponsored by Direct American Marketers, Inc., of Irvine, California, implied she would get ''a $6,000 cash transfer'' if she made a 1-900 call of about $12. All Cash Sweepstakes of Farmingdale, New York, VIP Tours of Hollywood, Florida, Mid-America Promotions of Greenwich, Connecticut, and an incredible number of other hustlers are stuffing our mailbox with promises of riches, hoping to get TC telephone-call bonanza.

The Congress passed, and President Bush signed, a bill last month to clamp down on abuses in the 900-number pay-per-call industry, which has grown from retail billings of $60 million in 1988 to $975 million in 1991.

There are many honest, legitimate users of the 900-number system. Telemarketing and the telemedia spread of information have a proper place in this society. But they will all be tainted as long as the ''you've won $7,500'' phonies can rip off millions of Americans.

The new legislation is toothless, too unspecific, to ever rein in the con men who've been sending letters to my wife. Congress owes it to me -- and you -- to put an end to these mail-telephone frauds.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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