BALTIMORE, JULY 27 -- A federal judge has halted operations of two companies accused by the Federal Trade Commission of deceptive advertising in promoting "gold card" credit cards in the Washington-Baltimore area.

U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray issued a temporary restraining order Wednesday against Baltimore-based First Capital Financial Inc. and Midas Financial pending a hearing next Thursday on the FTC complaint.

The two companies, according to the FTC, have promoted their gold cards in the area since 1988, falsely suggesting they are "functionally similar" to gold cards issued by MasterCard, Visa and American Express. In fact, the FTC said, the cards can be used only to buy items from catalogues distributed by the two companies.

To get one of the companies' cards, the FTC said, a consumer must request an application by calling a "976" telephone number, which automatically puts a $49.95 charge on the consumer's phone bill as a one-time card membership fee.

Only after that does the consumer learn there is additional $30 fee for the card and the catalogues, the FTC said.

Pitched at financially strapped consumers, the advertising falsely promises to report card holders' payment records to local credit bureaus to help consumers improve their credit rating.

FTC staff lawyer David Medine said the complaint was filed in court Wednesday but kept sealed until today "so that we could freeze the {companies'} assets. We wanted to be sure we got to the bank . . . before they heard about it."

He said the companies pushed the credit cards in telephone solicitations and advertisements on Channel 20 (WDCA-TV) in Washington, as well as in Baltimore newspapers.

He said investigators have not determined how many credit cards the companies sold or how much money they generated since 1988.

Three telephone numbers listed for the companies in Baltimore have been disconnected.

The FTC lists company owners as Henrietta Timmerman, also known as Harriet Timmerman, and Stuart Simon, also known as Stuart Blumberg, both of Baltimore, and Robert Dawson, also known as Bob Edwards, of Reisterstown. They could not be reached for comment.