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 July 18 , 2003 


Dialing Up Debt: Phone "acquaintance" service proves that talk isn't cheap


A new telemarketing scheme in Armenia has prompted minors to go to the phones and their parents to go to court.

Three months ago ads began appearing on local television, inviting viewers to dial a local number to meet friends, have their fortunes told and play quiz games.

Parents turned to an Armenian court to settle their dispute over phone bills averaging $862 for a telemarketing service.

Advertisements for Teleplas LTD feature attractive young women playing billiards, while a seductive voice-over invites viewers to dial six numbers for exciting entertainment. Ads are also appearing in print media. The advertisement says the fee, depending on which service is called, is 80 drams every 15 seconds, adding up to more than 50 cents per minute.

Ruzanna Mayilyan's 16-year-old son, Vladimir, is proof that the advertisement is effective. She learned just how effective, when she got her latest telephone bill.

"I was speechless when I was given the bill and was demanded to pay the amount of 723,000 drams (about $1,250)," Ruzanna says. "It appeared that when I was out my son made use of Teleplas services and now we have got ourselves into a mess."

It is a mess many are now trying to get out of by filing an action against Teleplas, charging that its ad is misleading and offers no safeguard against use by minors.

Housekeeper Christine Teryan was the first of 14 citizens to take legal action (while more than 300 have appealed to the consumer agency). Between May 10 and July 10, her 13-year old son, Aram, ran up a phone bill of 647,000 drams (about $1,115). Parents who have complained face telephone bills averaging $862.

"I don't think I failed to fulfill my parental duties and wasn't attentive to the daily needs of my son," Christine says. "The good grades he has prove it. He studies very well, nobody complained of his behavior. The advertisement simply misled him and he couldn't possibly calculate that if 15 seconds make 82 drams (about 14 cents) then 10 minutes or an hour would make a tidy sum."

Attorney Khachatryan says it is impossible to block minors from the service.

The Teryans were represented in court by David Sandukhchyan who argued that Teleplas' claims were dishonest "as the company had to take into consideration that a minor could make use of the facility and had to take measures that weren't taken." The attorney also complained that the television advertisement uses the terms "boys" and "girls" as a means of soliciting the young.

Representing Teleplas, Artak Khachatryan said that it is technically impossible to prevent the access of minors, and in any case there is no law in Armenia prohibiting access of such services to juveniles.

"If we would have mentioned that anyone under 18 is not allowed to have access do you think that the under-age wouldn't call," Khachatryan said. "On the contrary, they would be even more interested as the forbidden fruit is always more attractive. Besides this is not phone sex. This is simply an acquaintance club that everybody can use."

Khachatryan argued further that the service interrupts conversations every 10 minutes to remind callers that they are being billed.

"We have accounts that show 20 calls a day," he said. "It means that the person is not misled but realizes what he is doing and how much he or she has got to pay."

Several complaints have been filed with various consumer-action groups in Armenia. Last month the Armenian Public Relations Association held a press conference to advise customers of the service. The vice-president of the association said the group received more than 100 complaints during May.

The association prepared a complaint form to help citizens prepare complaints for court action. It also lobbied the phone company, Armentel, to restore services to those whose lines had been disconnected because of bills accrued by use of Teleplas.

Some who have taken legal action are not optimistic the court will find in their favor.

"It is necessary to fight against this disaster with the whole nation united and not to apply to court individually and fail," says Susanna Marijanyan, one of the plaintiffs.

Ruzanna Mayilyan says her son has become addicted to the phone service, and especially to talking to a psychologist he met in one of the services. She says he has developed strange behavior as a result of his involvement with Teleplas.

The mother says Teleplas is worse than casinos, because with gambling at least a customer has to have money in order to enter. But with the phone service, the surprise debt only comes later.

 

 


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