The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


April 1, 1998
3:00 PM

Fool me once

I can't resist a follow-up on last week's junk mail exposť.  Another one came, and this time it is from Dionne Warwick.  It even says "This is personal", with her very own signature on the outside of the envelope.  Right below the "Bulk Rate" stamp!

Inside -- isn't this nice? -- there's an autographed picture of Dionne: "with best wishes for your financial success".  To frame and mount on your dresser, no doubt.  Then there's the urgent letter.  Here's what Dionne has to say, personally, in her very own words, at least half of which are underlined all over the page:

Dear Name (by the way, the name is strangely printed in a slightly lighter typeface, slightly off line),

Are you okay?  I'm worried about you, I really am.

You see, your psychic tells me that right now, at this very moment, you are about to face a major decision in your life.  If you make the right decision -- incredible luck, money, and love could soon be coming your way.  But if you make the wrong decision -- all could be lost.

So, would you please do me a favor and call your psychic immediately - and receive FREE MINUTES!

That's right, I believe it is so important that you call right now that I am going to override all the standing rules and authorize that you immediately receive a FREE 5 MINUTE MASTER PSYCHIC POWER READING credit bonus!

(Bla bla bla)

If, for some reason, you can't get through to your regular psychic right away, go to the very next Master Psychic available.  They will be able to immediately tune into your special situation and draw great and good fortune into your life.


Now, to me, this letter is so funny all by itself, that it really requires no sarcastic, witty commentary on my part.  The underlying bemusement it spawns is a kind of smug, eye-rolling amazement that anyone would ever take something so stupid, so blatantly full of bull, seriously.  But then, the next thought, even more than with the travel scam, is: My God, there really must be people stupid enough to fall for this lunacy!  After all, they're all over television, and they bulk mail these letters to their list of suckers who have called before.  If only 0.1% of recipients of these letters are so completely gullible that they actually call back and talk to their Master Psychic for the 5 free minutes (and 20 subsequent minutes at $3.89 per minute, must be 18 or older, for entertainment only), then the Psychic Friends must make back their investment plus a hefty profit.  And that means that, indeed, there are quite a few people out there who are APPALLINGLY DUMB!

Now, as I've explained, I'm not one to try to legislate against stupidity in a free market, free speech country.  But if there's one thing that we can agree should be banned, or at least appropriately regulated, it's "900" telephone numbers.  Not just because they're used for these kind of insipid, life and money wasting scams ("Hi there, I'm Donna, what's your fantasy today?").  But think, calling a 900 number is the only business transaction I know that permits the "buyer" to make a purchase without any direct and specific authorization procedure between seller and buyer, involving a legitimate financial instrument of some kind.

Here's what I mean.  When you buy something at a store, you give them money, and you don't leave with the product until they have the money.  Otherwise, you use a credit card, which is processed through the computers until it's cleared.  You haven't actually "paid" with the credit card, but you've authorized payment, and your agreement with the credit card company assures that you are willing and obligated to pay the price, plus interest.  Other times, you make purchases over the telephone, or over the Internet, also using credit cards.  If you sign up for electricity service, or telephone or cable TV, you call the company, they hook you up, and you agree to a specific billing and payment arrangement, which is also typically regulated by the government.  The utility sends you a bill, and you pay it, and if you don't they eventually will cut off your service.

With 900 numbers, however, there is no authorization process other than dialing a telephone number.  The minute the line is connected (or after your "5 free minutes"), you start incurring your $3.89 per minute charges.  You don't have to sign anything, you don't have to give a credit card number, or even your name and address . . . you just have to call a specific telephone number.

And does the company that you call send you a bill for the service? No!  The charges show up on your telephone bill!  You might pay $23 a month for regular telephone service, and then see a $250 charge for Psychic Readings, but it's a phone bill, not a psychic bill. The telephone companies don't mind the arrangement, because, obviously, they get a piece of the action.  But what's happened is, because we already receive telephone bills every month, anyway, they've devised this scheme to use the phone company as a kind of credit card bureau, with far less authorization control than Visa and American Express: no credit limits, no signature verification, no access codes.  If you have a telephone, you (and, by extension, anyone who uses your phone) have unlimited authority to incur charges for 900 services, regardless of your credit history, income, even age (and evidently, intelligence).

The incentives to abuse and exploit this system are self-evident. Calling a telephone number is an impulse action very similar to picking up a supermarket tabloid rag: you just need to make that one, sudden decision, and it's on your bill.  If by chance you've ever recently glanced at a "Men's" magazine, you may have noticed that half the pages are overflowing with tawdry come-ons for dial-a-porn, banking on those male hormonal impulses to overcome what minimal common sense may lurk near the surface of the brain.  And of course you've heard the horror stories of advertisements for children to call 900 numbers, to "speak to Santa Claus" or the like, and the $1,000 phone bills that have resulted.  You can't even change your mind about a 900 call, send it back for a refund because it wasn't as good as you thought it would be ("They said I should marry Tom, but I was hoping they'd say I should pick Mark!").  Sorry, all sales final.

Yes, you can block the use of 900 numbers on your telephone line, and I advise everyone to take 5 minutes to do this.  It costs you nothing, and imposes a tiny little burden on the phone company which, if it occurred by the tens of thousands, might lead them to reconsider their unholy partnership with Psychic Friends and Debbie's Dungeon of Depravity.  And yes, if you scream at the right decibel level, and call once a week for 18 months, they will remove 900 charges from your bill and force the service operator to try to bill you directly.

But really, what gives these sleazeballs the right to use the telephone system as a credit authorization bureau and billing and collection agency in the first place?  You can't buy groceries simply by calling the store, and saying, "put it on my phone bill".  You can't go to a gas station, fill up, and then just ask the attendant for his telephone number (he'd probably smack you).

So the solution, it seems to me, is simple.  In order to use a 900 service or equivalent, customers should be required to send some kind of authorization form to the service operator, or maybe directly to the telephone company.  It would state that you, Name, are interested in using XYZ (or XXX) service, and you authorize the telephone company to bill you for that usage.  Alternatively, the service provider should bill you directly.  That's all.  But, you have to do it once for each service you choose to call.  And you should have to get some kind of access code, which you provide each time you call, so that no one else in your household can incur debts on your behalf without your agreement.

Unless, I suppose, you really plan to use a lot of these services, all the time (and please, if you do, don't try to strike up a conversation with me at a party; I really don't want to get to know you).  Then I guess you could sign some kind of blanket authorization, and live with a system about the way it is today.  But that arrangement, too, should result from an affirmative decision by the user, not as an incidental consequence of simply having a telephone in your house.

Naturally, I realize that any of these policies would have the practical effect of putting just about all the 900 services out of business, since they live and die on impulse buying ("temporary stupidity", in legal terms).  I'll shed many a tear, believe me.  Dionne might even have to go back to singing.  Of course, with all her Psychic Friends, finding her way to San Jose should no longer be a problem.


© 1998 David N. Townsend

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