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Dial-It Telephone Services Reach Out and Touch Your Wallet

From Associated Press

Beware the telephone. TV ads may tease and promise adventure at the fingertips. But it is call now, pay later, when the monthly bill shows where late night loneliness and the pursuit of romance dug into the wallet.

That once-friendly instrument, masquerading in the colors of the rainbow and shapes that range from computer clever to Space Age gothic, is at your service with services you never dreamed you would want.

Everything from pay-as-you-talk to Santa to pay-as-you-dream about sex.

A firm in Seattle brought down the wrath of parents with a half-hour Christmas show featuring Santa Claus. Children were told to hold their telephones toward the screen, whereupon tone-activated signals dialed up that jolly old elf so the kids could chat with him, while the computer logged and charged for the calls.

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Things have changed in the telephone world, not so much because the changes are needed, but because they are possible. And profitable.

Today’s telephone junkie can have intimate chats with all kinds of strangers.

Now a whole new series of 1-900 numbers are opening up. On some you are a quiz show guest, answering with your push-button phone to maybe win a prize. But you pay for the call, perhaps $2 for openers and more if you stay on the line.

A simple call on one adult sex line in New York City can run $20 or more, whether you talk or not.

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The telephone has spawned a new business that some say is eclipsing $400 million a year and growing. An evening of letting your fingers do the walking can ring up a $200 phone bill in a couple of hours.

The same comforting device that gave you grandma’s warm and comforting voice now gives you everything from strange sex to sexy strangers, from gays in search of companionship to high school kids on a high.

It offers up the stock market, the latest interest rates, advice on mortgages. Its recorded voices tell you what meetings there are in your community, where to shop for an auto loan, when to get up, how to pray, what your biorhythms are, when your stars are favorable, when they are not, how to get a date whatever your sexual or racial choice, who is going to win the Super Bowl and what the point spread is, where to get free money for college.

Dial and get the latest jokes, the top horse racing picks, lottery results, a daily diet, skiing bargains, sports scores, government job openings, insults, wine choices, movie reviews, soap opera reviews, music trivia, sports trivia, trivial trivia.

That’s not all.

On the gab lines you can chat with strangers, search for a date, leave your number for promised human adventure, dispel in seven push-button digits that most universal of all human conditions, loneliness. And if one is too shy, dial the adult lines (in New York there are more than 200 of them) and become an aural voyeur to kinky sex, erotic fantasy. From their lips to your ear, and only the telephone billing computer will know.

It is 5:30 a.m. in New York City and CBS has sandwiched in between its late-night rerun and morning business shows a commercial or two showing a black-dressed villain and a pretty blonde a la Perils of Pauline urging viewers to call a certain 970 number and rescue this damsel from certain boredom.

When the number is reached (after several tries), a woman’s voice says the call will cost $5 unless you hang up now. Then you are assigned your personal code number and given another telephone number to call. After several tries again, you enter your code, then push another number as instructed and finally reach a young, breathless voice named Linda. She is apparently ready to field your favorite fantasy, although she volunteers nothing.

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You find that she is a 22-year-old college graduate (political science) from a New York state university, is thinking about joining the Peace Corps, and is saving money to go to Europe to visit a friend.

You hesitate to ask, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in this racket,” and inquire instead, “Are you well-paid for this?”

She answers no. Then someone steps in and terminates the call. Either time was up or the questions were going too far.

Three weeks later the television invitation to call carries a sotto voce addendum: "$10 a call.”

This particular operation is offered by one of a group of companies, known usually as Omni Phone Inc. of Seattle, although in Texas the name is HDL Inc. The marketing and promotion is handled by a firm called the Megaquest Group, based in Seattle. The companies employ about 500 people and operate in about 30 cities domestically, plus all of Canada and in London, Rotterdam, Paris and Australia.

One of the satellite companies, Phonequest, was the one that engineered the Santa calling show. It was syndicated to 30 domestic and four foreign markets. When the Seattle station began getting irate calls, it quickly ran a warning to children with the printed words telling them to ask Mom and Dad first. Why did Phonequest, which has used the program for four years, rely on the electronic dialing technique? A spokesman said it was to prevent children from dialing the wrong number.

When one of the firm’s 970 numbers in New York City was dialed and reached after several abortive tries, a pretentiously sexy female voice answered and offered to be companionable. When the phone bill came in, it registered four calls and two additional minutes. The charge was $79.80, even though three of the calls never produced an answer. When the number was called back, post billing, this was the conversation:

Hi, welcome to party line.

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How much does this call cost?

You didn’t hear the recording?

There was no recording.

$19.95.

Goodby.

That number also was advertised on television, with an attractive young woman adding under her breathless message, "$19.95 a call.” It so happened that particular number was another Omni Phone enterprise. Betsy Superfon, known erroneously in the trade as “Betsy Superphone,” is chief executive officer of the Seattle-based firm.

She says the company offers everything from soap opera updates to joke lines, from dial-an-insult to group access lines. She outlined plans to go into other areas with information storage and retrieval via voice, a kind of telephone postal service, as well as interconnections between computers, and varying menus available on a single line to get specific data, for instance in sports, that the caller desires.

There is also a proposal to acquire her firm from herself and partners Joel and Rebecca Eisenberg. They claim a 1987 net income of not less than $4 million. The would-be acquirer is a Texas firm called WurlTech Industries of Houston, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange as a billiard table manufacturer. It was recently quoted at about a dollar a share.

Of the unanswered but charged-for calls, Superfon said she would refund any justifiable costs on receipt of a complaining letter. She said there is a quality-control program to prevent such errors.

Would she continue the current gab line and adult services in light of her future plans?

“Absolutely. People are lonely, have been lonely and always will be lonely.”

Besides, for many people the phone lines provide a real service for companionship, even though many of the people who link up by voice rarely see each other. “Telephones are really safe,” she says.

There is already the beginning of a second generation of telephone-line dating. From New York City comes word of a “Fax,” or facsimile-transmitter club, which for a few hundred dollars will let you fax your message to someone else’s fax, and never hear their voice if you don’t want to.

Industry-wide, most dial-it entrepreneurs would talk only on a not-for-attribution basis.

Chris Elwell, editor of the Information Industry Bulletin, one of the few authoritative sources in the dial-it industry, says using the telephone for information is nothing new. New York telephone operators have been giving the time of day since the late 1920s, with the weather and traffic information following. The old operator and the party line were avenues for news and gossip.

Advertising is a major expense for today’s purveyors. Small operations rely on word-of-mouth and matchbook covers to pass on tantalizing phone numbers.

Bigger operators use television. Evening television movies are interrupted with all kinds of invitations, sometimes attractive young women, purring, “There’s a party on your line whenever you want. Call as often as you want.”

Businesses that deal in sex have never been known for truth in advertising, but the expansion and invasion of the information telephone services, sanctioned by state and local authorities, is becoming troublesome to many.

In California, the state legislature and the Public Service Commission made it mandatory for the telephone company to block lines to such calls at the customer’s request. Pacific Bell has a suit pending against a dozen dial-a-porn operators to force them to cease and desist on the basis that they are damaging Pacific Bell’s reputation.

New York Telephone says it makes an effort to survey the talk lines and operators are required to provide monitors who can cut off disruptive or obscene callers. While this works on some lines, it doesn’t seem to work on others.

New York Telephone will now block dial-it calls from residences for free. Until this January, there was a $5 charge. Businesses must pay $10 and up, depending on the number of lines.

The company will also cancel the charges the first time, if the customer complains that a child or teen-ager made the calls without parental permission. After that, the customer is urged to have the line blocked, or keep their youngsters off the phone.

The phone company loses nothing. It gets half the charge whether the dial-it service collects or not. One West Coast company says uncollected calls cost it $400,000 a year.

Southern Bell shut down dial-a-porn services in Miami and Atlanta in 1984 and so far has been upheld by the courts.

The option of blocking calls apparently did not reach Vilma Lantiqua, a 49-year-old mother of a 17-year-old high school dropout in New York City. Her son, Sergio, had run up a $1,400 phone bill calling various party lines. In desperation she put the phone in her daughter’s padlocked bedroom. So one night in January, Sergio broke into his mother’s bedroom, stuffed a sock in her mouth and strangled her, police said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case this spring in which a California dial-a-porn operator, Sable Communications in the Los Angeles area, is challenging bans on dial-a-porn as abridgements of freedom of speech.

The law under contest is a 1988 federal statute that bans sexually explicit telephone message services. The law prohibits any obscene or indecent communications for commercial purposes over interstate lines. It provides for fines up to $500,000 and prison terms up to two years.

Whatever course the Supreme Court decides, there are a number of area phone companies which, fearing adverse reaction will affect the telephone information business in general, are planning to curtail or segregate the pornographic and gab lines.

The revenues are important. One New York state official said the information services help subsidize the general telephone services.

Those services that cater to homosexuals are more serious than other gab lines. They permit callers to talk with a group or “barhop” by pressing a designated key on push-button phones. One operator of such lines says they perform a real service, all the more critical in the gay community since the AIDs epidemic.

“Talking to someone before jumping into bed with him is a good thing to do,” he says. “Gays take this more seriously than do the straights, who tend to goof off and hambone on the gab lines.”

Most often dial-it profits are illusory, a gamble at best. Quality equipment is expensive, some devices running $2,000 a line or more. They force a telephone line, capable of carrying two voices, to carry six to eight.

Most operations start with bright ideas, some never come to fruition, some fail for lack of continuing innovation. It is a copycat business. Some reserved lines are still vacant. There are thousands more available.

The reason, one said, is that the field is littered with dead bodies, lost fortunes. Yet there are 200 million telephones out there, each a potential market.

Like many new ideas these days, this one started in the Western states. Ominously, that is where some of the harshest controls are showing up.

But gab lines are not likely to go away. As one frequent caller says, “It’s cheaper than going out.”

Or was.


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