Paging Service Hopes Surcharge Gives Drug Dealers the Message

Times Staff Writer

The nation’s biggest “beeper” service wants to hang up on its best customers--Southern California drug dealers.

Metromedia Paging Services has applied to the state Public Utilities Commission for permission to charge customers $1 for every call received by their mobile pagers beyond 1,000 per month.

Executives at Metromedia’s Southern California regional office in Anaheim figure the surcharge will apply only to drug merchants, who police say universally use beepers to take calls from customers or send coded messages to their lieutenants.

The new charges--which would boost the monthly fee for a customer receiving 5,000 calls from as little as $15 to more than $4,000--are just about the only mechanism Metromedia could devise to discourage the drug trade from using its service, General Manager Mary Hawkins said Wednesday.


“Right now it is easy and very cost effective for these people to become customers and use our system to hurt people,” Hawkins said. “Since I can’t stop them from becoming customers and since I can’t volunteer information about who they are to the police or law enforcement until the police or law enforcement give me a subpoena or search warrant to get the information, the only way left to us was financial in nature.”

School officials around the country have prohibited students from carrying pagers, small devices that allow users to receive untraceable telephone messages. But Hawkins said Metromedia’s Southland operation was, to her knowledge, the first paging service in the nation to propose such a crackdown aimed at drug-dealing customers.

Metromedia’s 100,000 customers in Southern California began receiving notices of the planned rate increase in the mail this week. The firm, a unit of Southwestern Bell, also has begun demanding credit information from all customers to screen out those with dubious backgrounds.

Under the rate proposal, the surcharge would not apply to customers using pagers for public emergencies, public health or public safety or to the medical professions.


Even those users rarely rack up 1,000 beeps per month, Hawkins said.

“We do business with people who really, really rely on our system, our service--who just flog it to death--and they might get 200 or 300 pages per month,” she said.

Though Hawkins said customers’ initial response to the plan was mostly positive, some law enforcement officials were skeptical it would send much of a message to drug dealers.

“You can levy fines on them, and they’ll just absorb that as a cost of doing business,” said Detective Milt Dodge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s narcotics division. “I can’t see where effectively it will cause any dent in their operations.”

Some of Metromedia’s competitors also cast a wary eye on the proposed surcharge.

“I can’t associate a high-volume use on the system to some nefarious purpose,” said Bob Stapleton, general manager for PacTel Paging in Los Angeles. “Maybe they have better information than we do. But that’s an association I wouldn’t feel comfortable in making.”

Only a small percentage of Metromedia’s customers get more than 1,000 calls per month on their pagers, Hawkins said. “But it’s growing, and that’s what we’re very concerned about.”

Privacy laws prohibit paging services from turning over data to police voluntarily. But Hawkins said she eventually hears from law enforcement about virtually every beeper that receives heavy use.


“When I started here six years ago, it was very rare that we’d get subpoenaed or get a request for assistance from law enforcement,” she said. “Now I’m besieged by them.”