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First of two parts on telephone fraud

You know -- or should know -- that your phone number is also your account number at most telephone companies. But have you thought about the risks?

Any phone book yields your name, your effective billing number and address. It's as if your bank had published the numbers of your credit card or bank account.

Your phone bill may show your account number as having extra digits, but in practice those extra digits usually don't count.

Phone-services companies are exploiting this open pipeline to your wallet, by posting unauthorized charges on your telephone bill, says Alan Taylor, chief of the Bureau of Service Evaluation for the Florida Public Service Commission in Tallahassee. It's called "cramming," and here's how it's done:

A company uses your name, address and account number to create a bill for services such as voice mail, paging, a personal 800 number or a calling card. A clearinghouse sends the bill to your local telephone company electronically.

When your phone company gets the charge, it automatically puts the charge on your bill, no questions asked.

Because the charge was unauthorized, you can call your local phone company and have it removed. But you have to notice it first.

Thousands of people don't check their phone bills, so they may pay crammers by accident. "It's just the Wild West on your phone bill," Taylor says.

One the of cram-ees was my father, F. Leonard Bryant, 85, who lives in New Jersey. He got a postcard saying, "Welcome to Coral Communications," which had signed him up for monthly voice mail and a telephone calling card.

He'd never heard of Coral Communications, based in Boca Raton, Fla. When he phoned to tell the company to get lost, Coral mentioned a sweepstakes, which he knew nothing about.

The next bill from his telephone company, Bell Atlantic, contained a $10.88 "set-up fee" from Coral's billing company, International Telemedia Associates. He called Bell Atlantic, which told him not to pay.

My dad -- sore as a boil -- called Coral. It directed him to International Telemedia Associates, which canceled the charge. Then, guess what came in the mail? A copy of the form that supposedly authorized his Coral connection. It was a sweepstakes (top prizes, $25,000 or a car). When you sign the card to enter the contest, you also sign up for phone services (disclosed only in the fine print).

My dad's signature was forged. The printed address wasn't in his hand, either. And his ZIP code was wrong (one thing the phone book doesn't show).

Coral's president, Michael Tinari, says that anyone could have forged my dad's signature, and adds, "I've never refused to give anyone money back for any confusion." He said his tactics are "as clean as anyone in the industry."

Florida has asked the Federal Communications Commission to require telephone companies to offer you a "billing block." You'd be able to tell your phone company, "don't put anyone else's charges on my bill unless I authorize it through a special PIN number."

"The local phone companies argue that a billing block is too expensive," Taylor says. "But they'll let you block incoming calls, for a price -- so why can't you also block who bills you?" Your phone company, by the way, makes money by handling these bills.

David Swan, a Bell Atlantic vice president, sees no problem with using your phone number as your billing number. Bell Atlantic has standards for prequalifying outside billers, he says. But one of its standards is "no sweepstakes," so how hard is it looking? A company spokesperson says it's now taking the problem more seriously.

Both the FCC and Federal Trade Commission have discussed anti-cramming rules but done nothing so far.

Best advice: (1) Check your telephone bill and call your phone company if you see something fishy. (2) Don't pay for unauthorized charges. (3) Don't fill out sweepstakes postcards displayed in malls, Laundromats and other public places, or accept "free gifts" from telephone salespeople. (4) Report cramming to your state attorney general. (5) Tell your phone company to quit fooling around. You want a billing block option, now.

WEDNESDAY: Fighting phone slamming.

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