When Julie Metcalf received a $400 telephone bill, she was shocked. For Tad Stearns, the shock was 10 times greater. His bill was for more than $4,000.

Metcalf and Stearns are just two of the many Utahns who have had unfortunate experiences with telephone calls made to 900 numbers in recent weeks. Neither of them was responsible for the calls, but both were victims of people who gained access to their phones while the owners were out of town.The Utah Department of Commerce, the Utah Public Service Commission and the Utah attorney general's office have launched "Telecommunications Alert - 900 Number Fraud," a consumer education campaign intended to help Utah telephone customers avoid the unpleasant experiences of Metcalf and Stearns.

The Utah Public Service Commission issued regulations in 1987 that allow Utah telephone customers to receive free blocking service for 900 and 976 toll numbers. The blocking service prevents phones on the system from accessing 900 and 976 prefix numbers. The PSC also forbids US WEST and other Utah-based telephone companies from disconnecting local service for non-payment of calls made to 900 and 976 numbers. And commission rules also require local telephone companies to provide a one-time option to customers to have their 900 and 976 billings forgiven.

PSC Chairman Ted Stewart said the public education effort is intended to make Utah consumers aware of the risks and costs associated with 900 and 976 prefix numbers.

Assistant Attorney General Joe Tesch said pay per call operations using 900 and 976 prefixes are becoming a favorite vehicle for consumer fraud.

"This 800, 900 and 976 thing is very serious business," Tesch said. "People have to be aware that 800 means they (the company) pay; 900 or 976 means you (the customer) pay. Parents need to be aware of the enticements used to get children and other youths to call these numbers."

Tesch urged parents concerned about such access to contact their local phone carrier to request the free blocking service. "Consumers need to be aware, and they need to be informed."

Dave Buhler, commerce department director, said in many ways 900 numbers are "a new twist on telemarketing."

"With 900 numbers, the consumer not only pays for the service, they end up paying for the sales pitch, and often at a very high price," Buhler said.

Buhler said consumers need to know how much a call is going to cost before it is made and be aware of delay tactics used by operators to extend the length of calls, a move that ups the cost to the consumer. He also warned consumers to be aware of advertising aimed specifically at children and advertising that uses the offer of free gifts as an inducement to make 900 or 976 calls.


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Preventing surprise phone bills:

- Get cost information in advance.

- Don't confuse toll-free 800 numbers with consumer-fee 900 and 976 numbers.

- Teach children to ask permission before dial ing numbers contained in TV or other advertisements.

- Check telephone bills for unauthorized 900 or 976 numbers.

- Utah-based telephone companies provide free blocking service for 900 and 976 numbers. Call your local carrier to request it.