Dangerous 800 Telephone Numbers

 By Les Spielman



Let’s start by setting the scene: that lovely couple, Barney and Mildred Dobson, together with their not so lovely 15-year-old son Dennis, arrive for a night’s stay at your hotel on the way to visit Mildred’s mother.

They’ve stayed with you before….both ways on this trip to and from mother’s house….over the years. This time, though, while Barney and Mildred are out for a walk, Dennis has a new weapon that will frustrate, bedevil and may even injure you, and you won’t know anything about it for weeks or possibly longer.

Dennis’s friend has given him a number to call for “SAVVY, SEXY, SENSATIONAL INFORMATION”. No, it’s not a “900” or a “976” number. Your telephone system blocks those calls. It’s an “800” number.

Dennis talked for only about 26 minutes, learning a lot about life in the raw….until he heard his parents opening the door to the room and he hung up in a panic.

The Dobsons leave and it is weeks later that you receive your telephone bill that includes a charge that the hotel’s Call Accounting System deems an “800” number call for $208. Is the hotel responsible? Do you send a bill to Mr. Dobson, a repeat client of the hotel, who will obviously deny any obligation? Do you get out of the hotel business, concluding that this is the last straw?

The fact is that “900” information service (IS) operator has found the way to transmute “800” number calls into pay by the minute calls (referred to as “Pay-Per-Calls”) by constructing through tricks, guile or possibly even fraud that the requirements for actual acceptance of information service calls have been met. The operator may also be successful as the result of the hotel’s failure to note and contest such calls or the hotel’s unwillingness to further bill the occupant of the room from which such a call was actually made.

The “information” being offered is not limited to sex-oriented materials: any and all information may fall within this protocol. The information service operator gets control of the “800” number; this entitles him to a call detail report from the “800” provider which gives him the originator, the time of origination and the duration of the call. With that information in hand, the operator prepares an invoice which he sends to his “800” number provider who immediately invoices the local telephone exchange company that services your hotel. And guess what? The hotel may end up with a $208 bill for the call that not-so-lovely Dennis made from the Dobson’s hotel room weeks before.

But, take heart! The Acting Chief of the Enforcement Division, Common Carrier Bureau of the FCC, Mr. Gregory A. Weiss, as recently as June 15th, 1994, has commented on this serious problem. In response to a letter from the Association of College and University Telecommunications Administrators(ACUTA), Mr. Weiss makes clear that charges may be assessed for calls to “800” numbers only when a caller enters into a “resubscription or comparable arrangement” with an information provider(IP). The FCC has set specific standards for the establishment of resubscription arrangements:

  1. The service provider clearly and conspicuously informs the consumer of the terms and conditions.
  2. The service provider agrees to notify the consumer of any future rate changes.
  3. The consumer agrees to use the service on the terms and conditions disclosed.
  4. The service provider requires the use of an identification number (PIN) to prevent unauthorized access to the service by non-subscribers.
  5. A resubscription arrangement may not be established during a telephone call for which information services charges are assessed.
  6. Mr. Weiss follows up by making perfectly clear that resubscription is not established if a party other than the caller is billed for the services.

It would seem eminently clear that the information provider cannot turn to the hotel, as opposed to the actual caller for compensation. The IP has the burden of demonstrating the existence of a valid resubscription agreement and if the hotel has not specifically agreed to accept the charges, it would not appear that the hotel could be held responsible.

Further, all should be aware that although IP’s may seek to collect unpaid charges, common carriers may not disconnect or interrupt in any way local or long distance telecommunications services for failure to pay charges for presubscribed information services.

Mr. Weiss’ letter is highly instructive and ought be read by all lodging management personnel. Hospitality Automation Consultants will be pleased to send copies as requested by a call to its offices as set out below.

Finally, there is affirmative action to be taken by every lodging organization. Federal and state regulations must be tightened so that information services calls via “800” numbers may not be accomplished through the media of this industry. The Federal Communications Commission and state Public Utilities Commissions must be made continually aware of the impact of the present situation upon the lodging industry. They ought be advised of every instance of billing to the establishment for “800” number information service calls and urgently requested to take steps necessary to eliminate the practice. Hospitality Automation Consultants has developed a letter that may be useful to the members of the industry, and it will be made available to anyone who calls the offices at the number set out below.

All hoteliers must be prepared for unscrupulous information service providers who don’t accept or follow the resubscription rules leading to the lodging being billed for calls made by individual guests. But by careful review most such calls can be identified and denied. Doing so, as well as making regular demands for more stringent regulations, state and federal, will lead to the elimination of the practice and substantial improvement of the mental and fiscal health of our industry.

One last warning about 800 numbers. A new scheme heavily advertised by MCI called “1-800-CALL-INFO” (1-800-225-5463) can be very costly for you, the owner of ANY telephone. Let’s presume that a friend of college asks to use your telephone to make an 800 call. This “800” call can be very costly to you. The cost to get a telephone number, out of your local calling area, is $.75 for the MCI service, the same as your long distance provider, however, the difference begins when the operator asks if you would like for the call to be completed. This call is now treated like an operator assisted call, with the initial minute cost of $3.37, PLUS the $.75 initial charge, PLUS $.27 for each additional minute. It is even worse for international calls. The initial information charge jumps to $3.00 from $.75 and the initial minute charge is $7.75 plus per minute charges of between 1.22 to $4.50. Our strong advise is to block this number from your PBX or Key System Unit (KSU).

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