The Santa Monica city attorney’s office is suing two companies that operate 976 numbers, charging that they duped people into making the $2 calls by deceitfully advertising jobs and rentals on signs posted around town.
Callers who responded to the signs, expecting to reach a person with a local job offer or a rental vacancy, got only a recorded message listing jobs and rentals areawide, said Jeffrey W. Holtzman, consumer affairs attorney for the city of Santa Monica.
American Communications Network is charged in the suit, filed last week in Superior Court, with falsely advertising jobs using “Help Wanted” signs. Genesis Communications is charged with deceptively advertising homes for rent.
The 976 numbers were hand-written on red-and-white signs of the type commonly sold in stores, Holtzman said, and some of the “House for Rent” signs bore messages like “3 bedrooms with patio, pets OK.”
“It’s a cheap trick,” he said. “People who call these numbers fully expect that the person at the other end of the line will be a person who can provide them with employment or with housing, and that’s not what they get. Instead, what they get is a recorded message.”
Some of the signs carried a message that said, "$2 plus toll,” but others did not warn of the charge, he said. Callers are automatically charged, usually $2, for dialing numbers that begin with 976.
The suit further contends that American Communications Network was operating as an employment agency, and that Genesis Communications was operating as a prepaid rental listing service. Both companies are in violation of the state Business and Professions Code for operating such businesses without licenses, the suit charges.
The companies are also accused of posting ads on public property in violation of municipal laws.
The lawsuit seeks $2,500 in civil penalties for each violation of the Business and Professions Code.
“The consuming public has suffered through junk mail, deceptive radio and television ads, and now to be confronted with false advertising through the use of a telephone is really disconcerting,” Holtzman said.
Chaun Donell, owner of Genesis Communications, disputed the charges, saying he had done nothing wrong.
“ ‘For rent’ signs are the best way for me to market my product,” he said. “There’s no deception about it. I’m not trying to rip anybody off.”
He said that he had posted signs on utility poles, but that none of them were hand-lettered and that none bore descriptions of individual homes for rent. Instead, he said, he used printed signs marked, "$2 plus toll.”
Anybody unhappy with the recorded message could call the telephone company and ask not to be charged for the call, Donell said.
He would not say where he gets listings of rentals to put on the recordings. “For me to expose my sources, that would be detrimental to my business,” he said.
He said he spent only one day last April posting signs in Santa Monica, then got a call from police asking him to stop. He said he did not know at the time that posting the signs was illegal.
American Communications Network could not be reached for comment, but the operations manager of a company owned by the same person said she does not think the practice is fraudulent.
“I don’t see how anybody couldn’t know they were dialing a 976 number,” said Marla Wedge, operations manager for Pacific Data Services. The co-owner of her company, Jim Makar, owns American Communications Network, she said.
Pacific Data Services provides blue-collar job listings for the Los Angeles area and real estate listings for San Diego, she said.
Wedge said she looks in newspapers’ classified ads to find employers who are advertising several jobs. She then calls those employers and offers to advertise for them on her job line at no charge. No ads are included on the recording without the consent of the advertiser, she said.
Personnel agencies also provide the company with job opportunities, she said. In San Diego, property management companies provide listings of apartment rentals.
The lines receive 150 to 250 calls a day, she said.