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Charges to 900 number disputed

I received a $25 bill for a call to a 900 American TelNet number placed May 4 at 2:07 a.m.

Since I live alone and no one else has access to my phone, I know I did not place that call, so I contacted GTE. They said they only pass along charges from 900 companies and are not able to remove disputed charges from their bills.

GTE suggested I contact the Public Service Commission. However American TelNet is a non-regulated company, so the PSC said it couldn't help.

Please warn everyone to get a 900 call block on their phone even if they live alone. A.R.

Response: Bev DeMemlo at the PSC said if you will call her, (800) 342-3552 or (904) 413-6107, she will ask GTE to take the charge off your bill. She said she will also turn your complaint over to her communications division, which is working with the Federal Communications Commission to develop a policy on this issue.

According to Robert Spangler, deputy chief of the Enforcement Division in the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, the FCC regulates only carriers. The Federal Trade Commission regulates the 900 companies themselves.

The FCC does prohibit phone companies from cutting off anyone's phone service due to disputes over 900 number billings, he said. Generally, he said, phone companies will take off a 900 billing when it is challenged.

The problem, Action recently learned, is that after the phone company removes the charge from your phone bill, the 900 company may turn the charge over to a collection agency. That's what happened to another Action reader.

Douglas Clark admits making a 900 call to check on a winning sweepstakes number. He said he was not on the phone for more than one minute but was charged $31 for eight minutes.

We called the sweepstakes company's billing agency last fall, and it agreed to withdraw the charge from his phone bill. However, when we recently called the agency about subsequent threatening collection letters to Clark, the agency said that by law it had a right to try to collect for legitimate phone calls.

A billing agency employee said he could not stop the collection process and did not know the name of the collection agency.

In 1994, the FTC alleged that American TelNet illegally referred 800 number callers to international or 900 numbers without making proper price disclosures, and then billed consumers for calls made to sex and psychic advice lines. In December of that year, American TelNet entered into a consent decree with the FTC in which it agreed to make refunds.

It sounds as though the best place to file a formal complaint about a 900 company is with the Federal Trade Commission, 1718 Peachtree St. NW, Room 1000, Atlanta GA 30367, telephone (404) 347-4836.

Refund obtained

A gentleman from George's Paving stopped to say he was working in my neighborhood and would give me a good price on sealing my driveway. It needed to be done, so I asked how much. He said he used a silicone sealer that costs $48 a gallon and that I would need four or five gallons. He also said it came with a five-year guarantee.

I usually spend $125 every other year to have my driveway sealed with asphalt, so in light of the guarantee, I told him to go ahead.

When he finished he said it had taken two coats and that I owed him $900.

I said, "No way. I can't afford that much."

Then he said, "Oh! I forgot to give you your senior citizen discount. It will only be $600."

I am 83 years old and live on $674 a month, so that was still too much, but I wrote him a check.

I should also tell you that he sprayed this black sealer on my white bricks and shrubbery, and I can't get it off. Worst of all, he now tells me the guarantee is only for one year. Hope Deatherage

Response: George Hess of George's Paving in Brandon said you were supposed to write us and say your complaint was all lies and he, in turn, would give you a $300 refund. You said you got the refund but insist that you told the truth.

We asked Hess for his side of the story. He said one of your neighbors told you that after complaining about a sticky driveway, she got $200 back, and so you did the same thing.

"It's all lies," Hess said. "She got a refund 'cause she cried."

We were happy to learn about your refund, even though the check says, "full refund _ no guarantee."

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Upon request, names will not be published.

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