Phone sex scam draws complaints Calls are proving difficult to trace

May 11, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The Maryland Public Service Commission and the C&P Telephone Co. have received hundreds of complaints about a new scam in telephone sex calls that appears to circumvent federal and state restrictions.

But the phone company hasn't been able to determine the origin of the calls because it doesn't have a number to trace.

Bill Shapiro of Owings Mills said he and his wife, Beatrice, received a call at 6:10 p.m. Thursday in which a "sultry, seductive voice" invited them to press "1" on their push-button phone for a "sexual surprise" and "sexual fantasy" -- at something over $3 a minute.

The Shapiros and about a dozen others filed similar complaints Friday with the Public Service Commission, while C&P officials said they've had hundreds of complaints over the last week. The Shapiros also complained to the phone company and the Federal Communications Commission.

Frank Fulton, PSC consumer affairs director, said the scheme is a new wrinkle because the telephone sex service makes the call to potential customer.

In most such arrangements, the customer initiates the transaction by dialing a 900- or 976-number. In either case, the cost of the service appears on the customer's phone bill, with the phone company acting as the collection agent for the company that provides the service.

"It's a scam," Mr. Fulton said of the incidents, "but it's an innovative technique. They're always testing and probing the network."

Telephone calls peddling all kinds of goods and services and seeking charitable contributions are legal and common enough -- particularly during the dinner hour. "But this was past the point of invading privacy," Mr. Shapiro said.

Variations of the message, urging the listener to press "1," were repeated for several minutes, Mr. Shapiro said. At one point, the voice warned that the messages were only for persons over age 18 and that the price was, as he recalled, "about $3.30 or $3.50 a minute."

Mr. Shapiro said he has two children, six and nine. "My 6-year-old daughter would press "1" in a heartbeat. I don't know what my NTC son would do." If a child should activate such a call, it could produce an enormous bill, he said, "and then you have to fight with someone to get rid of it."

Mr. Shapiro, who is in the electronics business, said he immediately pressed *57, the call-trace function, to try to track the call. But all he got was a message that said it originated outside the local calling area.

He said the telephone company told him there was no way to trace the call. He said the company's only suggestion was that he press "1" if he receives another call so C&P can try to trace the call from the billing.

"Nobody seems to know what to do," Mr. Shapiro said. "With the equipment they have today, I can't believe they can't find out, especially having the time of the call."

Dave Pacholczyk, a C&P spokesman, said his company can only trace calls made within its local calling area. He said Call Trace cannot pinpoint out-of-area calls because long-distance companies routing calls through local equipment do not have the tracing service.

Mr. Pacholczyk said the federal 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act requires telemarketers to identify themselves, the origin of the call and the cost within the first 15 seconds. The calls seem to be illegal because none of the recipients were able to get a calling number or name, Mr. Fulton said. One complainant said his child did press "1," and the man has agreed to send the bill to the PSC when it arrives.

"That's the only way we can trace them," Mr. Fulton said.

He said Maryland has a strict law on auto-dialing calls by telemarketers which can lead to fines of up to $5,000. If the phone-sex calls were dialed automatically, they would seem to violate state as well as federal statutes.

In cases where customers have complained about telemarketing calls and provided a name and number, the PSC has pursued the complaints, even in other states, said Mr. Fulton.

"It's not something we're pleased about," he said.

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