A Nasty Exchangerate

May 25, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Correspondent

Hagerstown -- John Rebarick says he had no idea what or where Sao Tome was until this winter, when a woman named Tanya gave him the most expensive geography lesson of his life.

Thanks to her, the 33-year-old Hagerstown man knows that Sao Tome and Principe is a tiny island nation off the coast of west Africa. He has also learned that one of its exports is sex talk -- which his roommate's girlfriend apparently imported liberally through an international "party line" that bypassed the 900 call-blocking service he signed up for the month before.

When the bills started coming in, she skipped town. Mr. Rebarick doesn't know whether she was addicted to the sex talk lines or was doing it for money. All he knows is she left him with about $3,500 in phone bills -- more than $2,000 for calls to Sao Tome alone.

Mr. Rebarick is one of a growing number of victims of an increasingly popular tactic among phone-sex merchants -- possibly in collaboration with foreign phone companies.

By setting up overseas sex lines, they get around 900 call-blocking, a service used by many employers and parents. And when the bills come in, as Mr. Rebarick found, the phone companies have one response to customers: It's your phone, it's your responsibility.

For Mr. Rebarick, the burden of responsibility has been too heavy. His phone service has been cut off, and he says neither he nor his roommate has enough money to have it restored.

Telephone company officials say they have heard relatively few complaints about international sex lines so far, but they're worried they could grow into a problem as serious as 900 lines were before call-blocking and other protections were introduced. Rules adopted by the FCC after Congress passed the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act require that charges be specified up front and that customers be given a reasonable time to hang up without charge.

They also give customers broad rights to refuse payment for unauthorized calls to 900 numbers -- a type of call where the local phone company acts as the billing agent for the service provider. But the international sex lines can evade those protections as well as call-blocking.

The major long-distance companies are able to block all international calls from a customer's number, but there's no requirement that they offer the service. And while that solution might work for a family with teen-agers, it could tie the hands of a company with global interests.

Bob Spangler, deputy chief of enforcement at the Federal Communications Commission, said there's little else U.S. long-distance carriers can do. As common carriers, they are required to put calls through without censorship, and there is no way they can tell whether a foreign number is a sex line until they start getting complaints. Even then they have no authority to block calls to those lines.

Unlike U.S. 900 lines, callers don't pay a defined premium -- just the basic cost of the long-distance call. So where are the profits going?

Mr. Spangler points to the foreign carriers who collect money for completing the call on their end -- in places such as Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles, Portugal, the Dominican Republic and Sao Tome.

No quick solution

"We've been told that not only do they have an idea, but that they're financing it," Mr. Spangler says. In many cases those phone companies are government-owned, he notes, adding that the U.S. government is trying to address the problem through diplomatic means. He holds out little hope of a quick solution.

Sao Tome's phone company, which installed a new digital phone system in January, is jointly owned by a Portuguese company and the Sao Tome government.

AT&T spokesman Dick Gundlach says his company is required under international agreements to pay "separation charges" to the foreign carriers that complete the call. He says each additional call going to Sao Tome increases the monthly payment to Sao Tome's phone company at the rate of 80 cents a minute.

So when a 30-minute prime-time call was placed from Mr. Rebarick's phone to Sao Tome on the morning of Feb. 24, $24 of the $100 charge went to the carrier in Sao Tome. On that day, when Mr. Rebarick and his roommate say Tanya was the only person they knew to be in their home, 21 calls were placed to Sao Tome. Mr. Rebarick was billed $1,088.76, and the Sao Tome phone company collected $278.40 that day alone.

Mr. Gundlach says the cost of completing the call in Sao Tome would likely be minimal.

Mr. Gundlach says AT&T can't legally deduct from its payments to the Sao Tome carrier, regardless of whether Bell Atlantic or AT&T ever collects the money from Mr. Rebarick. AT&T is negotiating with some foreign companies and recently concluded an agreement with Codetel, the Dominican Republic's phone carrier, allowing the American company to deduct from its payments when a customer protests.

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