THE GOODS : Be Sure It's Not a Phony

How do you know a telecard is legitimate?

With new companies pouring into the marketplace and virtually no regulation, the consumer needs to shop carefully, said Michael McLelan, chairman of the Prepaid Telephone Card Council, formed last June to establish guidelines for the burgeoning industry.

For the collector, there is no way to determine what the eventual value of a particular card may be, although cards that originated with legitimate telephone companies (and there are dozens) probably have a better chance, he said.

"The Europeans who drive the market (large telecard fairs in Europe set the pace for markets around the world) insist that the card's value lies in its origination as a legitimate phone card.

There are now some companies just concentrating on the collectible part, but I think their appeal will be limited to a small segment of people."

And for the functional part of the card--making sure you are really getting prepaid long-distance time--he offered this shopping checklist.

Your card should include:

* The name of the long-distance company providing the prepaid service to the user.

* The 800 number you call to get into the network.

* The authorization (or PIN) number for using the card after you get into the network. This is usually hidden under another number that you scratch off to use the card. (Packaging should prevent the card being scratched to expose the PIN number. A scratched card may have been used).

* An 800 number for customer service.

* A warning to users to protect the prepaid card as they would money or a credit card.

* The denomination of the card in long-distance minutes, units or currency.

* Either an expiration date or the information that the card has no expiration date.

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