Spain's heavy breathers off the hook

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MADRID'S 'insatiable nymphomaniac twins' will have no one to talk dirty to, at least for a while. Spain's state-owned telephone monopoly, Telefonica SA, has shut down its hottest money- making service - 'erotic lines' - after mounting criticism that it was corrupting the nation's youth for profit.

The twins and scores of other services - including 'liberal married couples', homosexuals, transvestites and 'animal lovers' - have been selling erotic conversations, and in some cases dates, via private sex line companies who pay Telefonica a fee for use of a number. Since the 'erotic lines' began in January, they have raked in around dollars 100m ( pounds 66m), about three-quarters of that going to the state company. In the current economic climate, it was income not to be scoffed at.

After many parents complained about inexplicable phone bills - one reported as high as dollars 100,000 for one month - Telefonica and the government came under increasing pressure to take action. Seeing the services advertised openly in newspapers and afraid to discuss sex with their parents, many children had, it seems, become hooked on the erotic lines, which all have a 903 prefix.

The lines had become more and more embarrassing to the state telephone company as it emerged that telephones in public buildings had increasingly been used to engage in heavy breathing. An investigation was launched at a police station in Majorca after the station's one patrol car clocked up a bill of several thousand dollars in a single week, all of them, as it emerged, to an erotic hotline. Legislative sources said both the lower house of parliament and the Senate in Madrid had uncovered a growing number of calls from their phones. The people's representatives were quick to insist it must have been their secretaries or cleaners who were placing secret calls.

The issue came to a head after two teenage girls from Valladolid, in northern Spain, disappeared for several days last month and were at first feared kidnapped or murdered. When they later surfaced in Madrid, they said they had been 'seduced' by a man they had been calling on one of the sex lines.

Then last week, Madrid police uncovered a prostitution chain that had been using a 903 'chat line' to lure clients. Spain's so- called Defender of the People, the equivalent of an ombudsman, who has long been demanding action against the lines, insisted on concrete action and the suspension was announced. According to Telefonica the suspension was temporary, until new rules can be worked out to regulate such telephone services.