The 900-Number Rule
This Rule was implemented by the FTC to fight abuses regarding the advertising and use of 900 numbers by services selling information or entertainment programs delivered over the phone, and billed to the caller's phone bill. Effective since November 1, 1993, it applies to interstate calls to such services. Companies that violate this Rule may be subject to fines of $10,000 per violation, if the FTC takes action against them.
The phone company cannot disconnect your regular or long distance service if you don't pay a 900-number charge. However, you could be blocked from making future calls to 900 numbers if you don't pay legitimate 900-number charges. Blocking is available from the phone company if you want to make sure no one using your phone can call a 900-number service charges for which would appear on your phone bill.900-Number Advertisements
All print, radio, and television ads for 900-number services must include:
- The total cost of the call if there is a flat fee;
- The per-minute rate if the call is charged by the minute, as well as any minimum charge; if the length of the program is known in advance, the ad must also state the total cost of the complete program;
- The range of fees if there are different rates for different options; the ad must also state the initial cost of the call and any minimum charges;
- The cost of any other 900 number to which the caller may be transferred; and
- Any other fees that the service might charge.
This information cannot be hidden in small print: The cost of the call must be next to the 900 number and printed in a size that's at least half the size of the 900 number. In a television ad, an audio cost disclosure also must be made.
When you dial a 900 number that costs more than $2 per call, before the information or entertainment program begins, you should hear an introductory message or "preamble." You can't be charged for this message. It must:
- briefly describe the information or entertainment service that is about to begin;
- give the name of the company providing the service;
- state the cost of the call; and
- state that anyone younger than 18 needs parental permission to complete the call.
Once this information is provided, you must be given three seconds to hang up without incurring a charge.
The Rule also covers 900-number services that promote sweepstakes. For example, some services offer the chance to win a prize by dialing a 900 number and, in some cases, entering a code. The Rule requires ads for sweepstakes to state the odds of winning or how the odds will be calculated. In addition, the ad or preamble must tell you there's a free way to enter the sweepstakes, how to enter, or how to get that information.
You must not be required to call and incur a charge to enter. This provision doesn't apply to contests where you have to demonstrate a skill, such as answer a question correctly. Think twice before calling a 900 number for a "free" gift the cost of your call may exceed the value of the free gift. And you will incur charges just by completing the call and staying on the line after the preamble.
The 900-Number Rule generally prohibits:
- using 800, 888 or other toll-free numbers for pay-per-call services, unless either the information or entertainment service has a pre-existing agreement with you, or you pay for the service by credit card;
- connecting you directly to a 900 number from an 800, 888 or other toll-free number; and
- calling you back collect if you've dialed an 800, 888 or other toll-free number.
Be aware that not all numbers beginning with "8" are toll-free. For example, the area code "809" serves parts of the Caribbean. If you dial this area code, you'll be charged international long-distance rates.
Exceptions to the Rule
The 900-Number Rule doesn't apply to calls you make to information and entertainment services over the phone if:
- you have a pre-existing contractual agreement with the information or entertainment service you are calling. (Entering into such an arrangement means that this Rule and its protections will not apply); or
- you authorize charges to your credit card for calls to an information or entertainment service. (As with any other credit card purchase, bills for these calls would be covered by the dispute resolution procedures of the FTC's Fair Credit Billing Act, discussed later.)
Billing Errors and Disputes
The 900-Number Rule has procedures for resolving billing disputes.
- Always check your telephone bill for 900- number or other pay-per-call charges. They must be listed separately on your phone bill.
- For each pay-per-call, your bill should include the date, time, and length of the call (if charged per minute).
- Your billing statement must include a local or toll-free number you can call for answers to questions about charges to 900-number services.
If you find an error on your bill, follow the instructions on your statement as to whom to contact to dispute the charge. In most cases, it will be your local or long distance telephone company. You must notify the company listed on your bill within 60 days from the date the first statement containing the error was sent. The company must acknowledge your notice in writing within 40 days unless it has resolved the dispute by that time. Within two billing cycles, but no longer than 90 days, the company must:
- correct the billing error and notify you of the correction; or
- investigate the matter and either correct the error or explain the reason for not doing so.
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