After a brief absence, pirate phones return

City's challenge: Operators of illegal pay phones test Baltimore's resolve to prosecute.

August 06, 1999

THREE MONTHS after six illegal pay phones were removed from Monroe and Fayette streets and that notorious open-air drug market was closed, pirate phones are back.

On Wednesday, unauthorized pay phones were installed near the intersection by an independent telephone operator who does not identify itself on the call boxes -- a violation of Maryland Public Service Commission requirements. (Public Works Director George G. Balog quickly had the phones removed after The Sun informed him that they were back.)

Meanwhile, illegal pay phones are returning to other locations, too. Two examples:

A pay phone has reappeared outside 1527 W. Pratt St. It is connected to a phone line that comes from a vacant rowhouse.

Another has been installed illegally at 2205 Frederick Ave. after police opposed granting a permit for it.

This is outrageous.

Pirate phones -- many near well-known areas of street drug trafficking -- far outnumber the 592 authorized pay phones in the city. And Balog, who is responsible for overseeing the issuance of permits, ought to do something about it.

A new law, enacted after a Sun editorial shed light on the problem, prescribes a $1,000 a day fine for anyone guilty of installing illegal pay phones. Let's use it.

It is telling that none of these recently installed phones identifies its owners or their numbers, even though those are PSC requirements.

That points to fly-by-night companies who want to hide their identities from users and authorities. But telephone service providers such as Bell Atlantic know who those illegal operators are.

In previous editorials, The Sun has wondered why "the city has ac- tually been aiding drug dealers in their nefarious activities" by tolerating illegal phones.

As puzzling as it is that drug traffickers still rely on pay phones in this age of cellular phones, the link is clear to authorities. So is the relationship between these open-air drug markets and nearly 60 percent of Baltimore's shamefully high murder rate.

As long as known open-air drug markets operate with impunity and illegal pay telephones are condoned, Baltimoreans should wonder why city officials insist on turning a blind eye to the lawlessness everyone else can see.

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