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Two 900-Number Firms To Modify Ads for Children

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Washington--Two leading purveyors of 900-number telephone services that had been accused of "deceptive and unfair marketing" in their commercials aimed at children have agreed to modify their advertising, the Federal Trade Commission announced last week.

The firms--Teleline Inc., of Los Angeles and Audio Communications Inc., of Las Vegas--had been the subject of complaints to FTC.

Efforts to reach an agreement with a third business, Phone Programs Inc., of New York, failed. Don Elder, an FTC spokesman, said that the agency will take the firm to court.

That firm said in a statement that it refused to settle because "the FTC's charges against Phone Programs are untrue." The firm said it already warns children that they need parental permission and lists the price of calls.

Under the agreements, the other two firms have pledged to inform young viewers that "you must ask your mom or dad and get their permission before you call" the 900-number because "this call costs money."

Children who dial the number will then be admonished that "this telephone call costs money. If you do not have your mom or dad's permission, hang up now and there will be no charge for this call."

In addition to the warnings, the agreements require the telephone-message services to provide the price per call in the ad.

Both firms ran television commercials inviting young viewers to make calls to talk with the Easter Bunny.

Both commercials noted that the calls would cost $2.45 for two minutes and advised children to get permission. The FTC said such statements "did not provide a reasonable means for parents to exercise control."

The agreements specify that if the firms cannot develop other ways for parents to exert control over the placing of calls, they must arrange with local telephone companies to print the words "Child Call" alongside charges for the 900-numbers, and provide information on refunds.

The agreements, designed to protect children under age 13, will be final after a 60-day period for public comment.

An industry-reform group, the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Businessel10lBureaus Inc., recently reported that two out of three ads for 900-number services during children's television programming violate its guidelines. (See Education Week May 1, 1991.)

Also last week, the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved a measure that would require parental consent before children under age 18 could call any 900-services, including ones such as sports-data lines that are not aimed at young children.

The bill also would prevent telephone companies from cutting off services to those who refuse to pay 900-call charges and make the service providers tell callers the nature and cost of the service being provided and allow them to hang up before accruing charges.

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