The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. is investigating an $8,863.15 telephone bill that a Southeast Washington woman received after 3,537 calls, which she cannot account for, were placed in two months from her number to five adult message services.
The calls were placed before C&P, which offers the special service using the 976 exchange, required companies operating 976 phone messages to notify customers of the cost at the beginning of the call and give them a chance to hang up without being billed.
Geneva Evans said her 19-year-old daughter admitted making "a few calls" to a 976 exchange number that she saw displayed on television. But the daughter denies making the thousands of calls that showed up on her mother's bill.
C&P disconnected Evans' telephone after she failed to pay the 258-page phone bill, and initially told her that she must pay before her phone could be reconnected. But after an inquiry yesterday from The Washington Post, company officials reconnected Evans' phone and said they were reevaluating her case.
C&P spokesman Web Chamberlin said that the phone company generally makes every attempt to collect the charges for 976 calls. "There is no blanket rule or policy," said Chamberlin. "But we try to sustain the charges if there was not a wiring error or a fraudulent act."
C&P records show no wiring problem with Evans' telephone, and company officials notified Evans when her local bill began climbing, as it does when any customer's local bill reaches $400 in one month, Chamberlin said. But Evans said she never received a call or letter from C&P about her account until the bill arrived in the mail.
"I was very angry," said Evans, who works as a housekeeper at a District hotel. "They didn't call me up. They didn't write me. I didn't know what to do."
Adult messages whispered over the telephone, often referred to as "dial-a-porn," are a growing phenomenon in the District and Maryland where C&P offers the service and shares equally in the revenue from the calls, but is not responsible for the content of the messages. C&P does not offer the 976 message service in Virginia.
The 976 numbers carry a variety of messages, including Dial-a-Prayer, Dial-a-Joke, sports tips and horoscopes, and cost from 50 cents to $9.95 a call.
The phone numbers displayed on Evans' bill, however, do not connect the caller to a recorded message, but to "party lines" that allow the customer to talk to as many as eight people during a two- to three-minute call. The five 976 exchanges on Evans' bill charge from $2 to $2.50 a call.
The owners of the 976 message services on Evans' phone bill could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Adult message or party-line phone numbers are often advertised on television, through the mail and on cards distributed throughout the city, scattered on porches and doorsteps and placed under car windshield wipers.
After C&P customers complained that the price of the calls was not clearly advertised and that children could call the numbers and run up expensive phone bills, the company on July 1 began requiring that all 976 messages or other types of lines in the District must notify customers of the cost at the beginning of the phone call. The rule went into effect in Maryland in February.
C&P also is working with the D.C. Public Service Commission to install a device into phones by the end of the year that will block any 976 calls if the customer wants to prevent abuse of those numbers.
The phone calls made from Evans' phone were dialed between April 16 and June 16, before the new cost rule went into effect. Evans said that her daughter did not know she would be charged for dialing the number.
Chamberlin said that before the rule went into effect, 976 services were required to state the cost sometime during the call. He said C&P randomly called 976 numbers to check compliance, but the company has no records indicating whether a price was stated after dialing the three numbers in Evans' bill.
The calls on Evans' $8,863.15 bill were placed at various times of the day, and often 15 calls of three to four minutes each were placed in one hour. On April 21, for example, a one-minute call was made at 3:03 a.m. to one 976 number, and at 3:04 a four-minute call was made to a different 976 number. Two calls to two 976 numbers were made at the same time -- 3:12 a.m. -- and she was billed $2 for one call and $2.50 for the other.
"That's possible that you could make two calls in a minute," said Chamberlin, explaining that a person could dial one number, plug into the service, hang up and immediately dial again within the same minute.
While C&P officials carefully examined Evans' records yesterday, she was just happy to get her phone back. "I'm so happy I don't know what to do," said an exuberant Evans. "I miss calling my friends from my church group."