CyberWire Dispatch// Copyright 1994 //

Jacking in from the "There's No Free Lunch" Port:

Washington, DC -- So you think that all calls to an 800 number are free? Think again.

Not only are some calls to an 800 not free, you may be getting popped for the bill without knowing it.

I know, I know. Where is the trust? A free call to an 800 number is one of the few remaining "free lunch" perks us ordinary Joe's and Jane's had going for us.

Actually, the practice of allowing companies to charge for 800 number calls has been going for a while now. Funny how such rules slip into being without much fanfare, eh? Do you recall any of the long distance phone companies taking out ads to tell you this news?

I mean, MCI could have taken their obnoxious Saturday Night Live frontman -- the one that does the insufferable 1-800-COLLECT ads -- and had him whine: "Hey, Phoners... not all 800 calls are FREE anymore. Get a Clue, Phone Dude."

Although there are legitimate uses of "for fee" 800 services, the practice is still highly dubious. Why? Because it does run against a certain "trust" telephone companies have built up.

Don't believe me? Try this. Ask the next 10 people you see this question: Are calls to an 800 number free? I'll bet 9 of 10 tell you "Yes."

Of course, the Dial-A-Hard-On sex chat lines were the first to learn how to abuse the "right" of being able to bill for 800 calls. The sex chat folks would, in essence, issue an instant 'calling card' to some sweaty, heavy breather, creating an "business relationship" which was allowed under the for-fee 800 billing rules. The caller would get a PIN with his instant calling card. On subsequent "visits" the caller tapped in the PIN and the meter began ticking.

The tricky part came in on the billing side. Businesses, hotels and college dorms routinely block calls to 900 numbers, afraid of the potential for untraceable and astronomical bills. But such isn't the case with calls to 800 numbers. "Why block calls to free 800 numbers?" goes the thinking.

Here's another bit of "Inside Telco" info for you: Whenever you make an 800 number call, all sorts of information is "captured" by the service you're calling. Name, address, telephone number, etc. Neat trick, eh? It's done using a nifty piece of software called Advanced Intelligent Network or AIN or short.

Well, these porn lines would issue an instant PIN tied to the AIN information off the original 800 number call. So, if you called a sex line using an 800 number from the Rectory of your local Catholic Church or the office of a congressman and were issued a PIN, any later calls you made would be billed to the church or congressman's phone because the porn line guys "captured" the billing address information from that phone.

Suddenly, businesses, hotels and college dorms (don't know about churches or congressman's offices) were hit with tens of thousands of dollars in bogus billings, all tied to porn lines.

The FCC and Federal Trade Commission hammered such loop holes last August after a hue and cry of public complaint.

The trick for billing to an 800 number is that it can done if one of three criteria are met: (1) The call is billed to a credit card. (2) The call is billed to a pre-subscribed calling card. (3) An established billing agreement between caller and service provider is in place.

For example, say an Internet service provider wants to establish nationwide service, but doesn't have local calling numbers in place in every city. The answer might be to buy a huge block of time from a long distance company to get cheap rates and then allow callers to connect via an 800 number that is billed to a credit card. Not perfect, but legitimate.

AT&T To MCI: Hold The Phone

But on Wednesday those madcap pranksters of the long distance market, AT&T, decided that MCI had pissed on their parade one too many times. So, AT&T, October 19, filed a formal complaint with the FCC against its closest competitor over a service it launched called 1-800-CALL-INFO.

AT&T claims the service is illegal because it violates federal rules governing billable 800 calls.

The MCI service connects the caller to an information operator. Anywhere, anytime, from any phone. It's an ingenious service, and one that, if left intact, is sure to eat into AT&T profits just as the brilliant 1-800-COLLECT service has kicked AT&T's ass in the collect calling market.

But like the 1-800-COLLECT service, MCI has chosen not to "brand" the service. In other words, they don't tell you it's an MCI service. Are they embarrassed of their own brand? Some folks at AT&T think so, but they cherish their pension plan and wouldn't go on record saying it.

So, having been embarrassed at the drubbing they've taken in collect calling market, AT&T's gone to the FCC complaining about the MCI's 800 directory service. AT&T's complaint says that MCI bills customers for the service without informing them beforehand of the cost. (Hey, AT&T... it's right there in really, tiny print on the TV screen...)

Dispatch called MCI for comment; no calls were returned.