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Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone that approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined. -- Patrick Henry, speech of June 5, 1788

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If you believe all 800-number telephone calls are free: beware. Some 800-numbers provide information or entertainment that costs money. And, more and more consumers are being charged for these calls on their telephone bills, often unlawfully.

Most 800-number services are free. Those that charge must either ask you to pay with a credit card or make billing arrangements with you before providing the information service. They also must provide protection devices such as a personal identification number (PIN) for you to use in obtaining services. These security methods must prevent unauthorized access to the service.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the state Attorneys General, however, have recently received numerous consumer complaints about 800 and international telephone number scams.

For example:

* Some 800-number calls that cost money do not tell you about the costs for calling the service. Some charge for calls that were advertised as free. You may call an 800 number and find that you are referred or transferred to a costly entertainment service, an international telephone number, or a 900 number.

* Other services do not adequately prevent unauthorized use, and you may be charged for 800-number calls you did not make or approve. In some instances, anyone using your telephone can contact the 800- number service, but the charges will show up on your telephone bill.

* Some companies promote information or entertainment services you can obtain by calling an international telephone number. These calls are billed at international long-distance rates and can result in expensive charges on your telephone bill.

What to Expect from 800-Number Services

Unlike 900-number (pay-per-call) services, most 800-numbers services are free, and 800 number services may not:

* Automatically transfer you to 900 numbers.

* Make collect calls back to you.

* Charge you simply for completing the call.

* Charge for information or entertainment provided during the call, unless you:

-- use a credit card for payment, or

-- have already contracted with the 800-number service to be billed. In this case, the company must tell you its name and address, its rates and rate changes, and where to complain. In addition, the company must use a security method, like a PIN, to prevent unauthorized charges.

Tip-Offs to Problems

How can you spot questionable telephone information services? Many of these:

* Advertise on late-night television or cable, in tabloids, and in classified or personal ads. Remember that both legitimate services and those that violate the law may advertise in the same places.

* May include services for "adult" talk lines, dating, and horoscope or psychic readings.

* Have international prefixes like "011" or "809."

* Make such claims as: "not a 900 number," "no premiums apply," or "long-distance (LD) rates apply."

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

Know that blocking calls to 900 or 976 numbers will not prevent calls to 800 numbers or international telephone numbers. To protect yourself and prevent unauthorized charges from 800-number services, make sure you:

* Check carefully, before making advance arrangements to be billed, that 800-number services have the safeguards mentioned above, including PINs, and that they provide you with all required information.

* Tell children or other adults in your household to get your permission before using your telephone to call these services. For example, children should be wary of telephone numbers that are outside your own area code or have more than 10 digits; these may be international numbers.

* Carefully check your phone bill to spot any 800-number charges. These should be identified as 800-number calls. But, be careful_some may be mislabeled as "long-distance" or "calling card" calls and are easy to overlook.

* If you think your phone bill includes charges for calls to an 800 number for which you did not prearrange to be billed, dispute the charges. Follow the instructions included with your billing statement for disputes. For instance, call or write your local or long-distance telephone company or, in some cases, an independent firm that provides billing services. You must notify the company listed on your bill within 60 days after the first statement containing the error was sent.

* If the charge for an 800-number call is removed from your phone bill, the service provider still might try to pursue the charge by other means, such as referring the matter to a collection agency. If that happens, you have rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (see below).

For More Information

If you have questions or complaints about 800-number, international number, or 900-number telephone information or entertainment services, contact your state Attorney General's office. Check your local telephone directory for the number.

The National Fraud Information Center (NFIC) is a private organization to which you can report problems with telephone information or entertainment services. Call toll-free: 1-800-876-7060 (Monday though Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST). NFIC also reports your complaints to the national Telemarketing Complaint System operated by the FTC and the Attorneys General.

You also may want to contact the FTC. Write: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580. While the FTC does not resolve individual disputes, your comments help in its law enforcement efforts.

For a free copy of the FTC's brochures, 900 Numbers, Fair Debt Collection, or Best Sellers (a list of more than 100 free FTC publications on telemarketing fraud and other consumer issues), contact: Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; (202) 326-2222. TDD: (202) 326-2502.

Alert for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission in cooperation with the National Assn of Attorneys General

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