Call a porn line and help a Third World country

Telephone sex is the new 'foolproof' moneyspinner for small countries. The only loser is the unwitting domestic user

When A Japanese housewife last month got a phone bill for $3,700 (pounds 2,400) she became one of the latest victims of an extraordinary racket involving international phone-sex lines. The bill had been almost entirely run up by her son, dialling the remote South Pacific island of Niue, population 2,500, where banks of pornographic phone lines have been installed which are advertised in Japanese magazines.

Other Pacific islands in the same business include Tuvalu, formerly the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, whose phone lines also advertise in British magazines. Some of the advertisements mention in small print that "international rates apply". In fact a call to Tuvalu costs pounds 1.30 a minute. By comparison, a call to Canada costs 40p a minute. The difference in price is not because Tuvalu is on the other side of the world. It is due to the greater charges levied on incoming calls by the telephone monopoly in the receiving country.

These extra payments are the economic foundation of the burgeoning offshore phone-sex industry. In minute countries like Tuvalu, Niue or the former Portuguese colony of Sao Tome in Africa, the installation of a bank of pornographic phone lines can double the amount of international phone traffic, according to industry observers. This represents a fat profit to the telephone business. The owner of the porn lines takes a cut, usually about 30 per cent, and the only loser is the occasional customer saddled with an enormous and unexpected telephone bill.

"There is huge money in it," said one industry source. "No one would be setting up in these small island states or small African states without it being worthwhile. These are significant contributions to the local government budget. One could almost call it a form of Third World aid."

The proposition can seem foolproof to small governments, whose only other easy source of income is printing stamps. Many of the phone lines usecomputerised voice-mail programs, so there is little employment involved. But there is no financial risk to the host country either - the porn-line operators are simply given a cut of whatever additional revenue they generate. On some small Pacific islands, banks of 10,000 phone lines - many times the number of local subscribers - have been installed to cope with calls from Japan.

Increasing controls have tended to drive the pornographic phone-call industry out of the countries where its customers are. But international calls have some advantages for customers, too. Apart from being completely uncensored, they do not show on credit-card statements, and, whereas many companies bar calls to 0898 numbers from their switchboards, business reasons often make it impossible for them to block international calls.

The cost of international sex calls can be very high. There are so many specialised phone codes in advanced countries that many customers have no idea they are dialling abroad, to some of the most expensive destinations on earth. Many of the smaller country codes, such as 00688 for Tuvalu, do not seem at first sight to be international: the impression that they are not can be heightened by skilful typography in the advertisement. In the case of Niue, this confusion is increased by Niue numbers only having four digits after the country code.

Guyana (00592) is another country whose porn lines are widely advertised in British and American publications, though South Africa and Hong Kong also appear to be popular destinations. A spokesman for BT said it was always possible, if complaints were received, to block particular numbers. But whole countries cannot be excluded just because many of their telephone numbers lead to a pornographic voice-mail system. And to exclude single numbers, or even banks of numbers, can never work for very long, because the operators can simply switch to new ones and readvertise.

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