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Beware of those expensive 1-900 telephone numbers

Those 1-900 numbers are proliferating like crazy, offering a vast array of information, products and services at your fingertips.

A word of caution: Many of these 1-900 numbers are nothing more than scams designed to steal your money. Here's how they work:

1-900 numbers are pay-per-call services. That means that you pay for the call based on the amount of time you stay on the line. Some of these 1-900 services are legitimate. But many are not, and rather than offering an important service or product you may need or want, their sole purpose is to keep you on the phone as long as possible. If you get caught in this trap, it can cost you dearly on your next phone bill.

Charges for 1-900 calls are set by these companies themselves, not by the government or the telephone company. In the hands of unscrupulous telephone solicitors, this is practically a license to steal. Be wary of services that don't tell you exactly how much the call will cost for each minute. Often, these calls have built in delays and automated messages designed to do nothing but extend the duration of the call. Some 1-900 numbers actually put the caller on hold and make you wait for the information.

You will be billed for all of this call time, and it generally will take expensive minutes waiting for the information.

Another common 1-900 scam is to send letters telling people they've won a guaranteed prize and directing them to call a 1-900 number to claim the prize. Generally, the prizes are worth a dollar or two. If that happens, you've just been taken. That's because the call could cost you $25 or more.

The best advice is to avoid these services altogether. However, if you decide to dial a 1-900 number, there are a few things you should know first: When you dial a 1-900 number, you should hear the company's name, a description of the information, goods or services being offered and the per-minute cost of the call. After hearing this information, you also should be given a few seconds to hang up the phone before the per-minute charges start accruing.

Bills for 1-900 calls should tell you who to contact if you believe there's a problem. They also should provide you with a local or toll-free number that you can call to dispute the charges.

And finally, if problems persist, you can ask your local telephone company to put a block on your phone to prevent it from being used to make 1-900 calls.

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