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Sunday, October 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Troubleshooter

`Santa Clause' Has A Line That Could Invite Trouble

Times Staff Columnist

That red-and-green trim is appearing on retailers' shelves along with gifts, wraps and ribbons. The only thing missing is Der Bingle crooning "White Christmas." But not to worry: Bing will be right behind the Great Pumpkin.

When you start perusing the shelves for holiday videos to give as gifts, be careful. There's one out there that continues to be a problem for parents: Disney's "The Santa Clause," with Tim Allen.

Think twice about giving it to a family with a child old enough to place a phone call, because the video contains an oh-so-easy-to-remember number, 800-SPANKME, that leads to 900 lines with adult content and high charges. Callers are told they'll pay if they go on from the 800 to the 900 lines, which cost from $2.50 to $4.99 per minute. The off-shore lines beginning with "011" - to which callers also are referred - may cost even more.

Never mind that the 800 number tells callers this is adult phone talk, or says they must be 18 or older.

To my knowledge there's no way for a 900-line service provider to determine whether a caller is 18. So it appears that even if you don't have a credit card, you can dial a 900 number and put it on Mommy or Daddy's phone bill.

Parents' only real defense is to ask their phone companies for 900-blocks on their phone line when the kids get big enough to dial. Or until you're paying them, say, $250 to $500 a month in allowance.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission will arrange for such calls to be removed from your phone bill, and your phone service cannot be turned off if you refuse to pay. But the 900 provider could turn you over to a collections agency and ultimately affect your credit report.

Disney has grossed $145 million from "The Santa Clause," according to an Oct. 10 report in the Los Angeles Times.

I can't tell you how much the 900-line providers have grossed since the "spank me" line was installed. Nor do I know for sure whether the number was instituted before or after the Allen film.

In the film, Allen stars as a selfish, divorced toy executive who suddenly finds himself contractually obligated to be Santa Claus. While warming up to the job, he develops a closer relationship with his son.

When Allen's ex-wife delivers their son to spend the holidays with Allen, she hands him a slip of paper with the phone number of her new mother-in-law, in case of an emergency.

Allen blows it off as a joke and says something like, "Oh, yeah, right. I'd call 1-800-SPANKME."

But it's no joke to parents who have gotten phone bills for hundreds of dollars in charges when their kids called and went on to dial the 900 lines mentioned.

In early 1996, I wrote about two 9-year-old girls who called the 800 line, then may have been transferred to the 900 line. They rang up more than $500 in charges on one parent's bills.

As a result of those columns, I heard last week from an outraged 35-year-old Long Island father of three daughters.

His 10-year-old daughter made calls totaling about $250 to the 900 lines. Then, when she showed signs of being disturbed and upset, her parents paid for counseling.

Now Long Island Dad is furious. He wants Disney to recall its home videos and remove that line from the film before reissuing it.

That's right, recall. His logic is, if Uncle Sam can order automakers to recall hundreds of thousands of vehicles for repairs, why not a video that needs to be "repaired"?

Like a lot of thirtysomethings, Long Island Dad grew up watching "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights. He's taken the family to Disney World several times and owns a lot of Disney videos.

But now he's disillusioned. He thinks those who produce Disney films and videos are a bunch of hypocrites, and adds they blame him for his daughter's calls.

The disgruntled dad says Disney offered him a refund for the video, but he wanted different action and has called and written numerous times.

Long Island Dad thought he heard one Disney executive promise that the 800-SPANKME number would be removed from the film when it appears again on the Disney Channel, and from future videos sold. The dad also says he's been told Disney tried to buy the 800-SPANKME line.

But Tania Moloney, who heads marketing for Buena Vista Home Video, a division of the Walt Disney Co., says those scenarios are unlikely. "It would be more accurate to say that we have talked to the people with that number," Moloney said, and asked that the message be made more explicit to discourage calls from youngsters.

That's not good enough for Long Island Dad: "Disney (which owns ABC) will pay $1.25 million to Allen per `Home Improvement' episode, but it won't spend a dime to recall a film with a `porno' number."

Well, readers, what do you think? Should this film be recalled? Is there a way to make it tougher to keep teens and pre-teens out of 900 lines, short of a 900-block?

Cases closed

C.H., Kent: Glad to hear you were able to resolve the problem of charges to a 900 chat line for $195. You have since requested a block for all 900 numbers on your phone line, and notified the companies involved.

P.B., Issaquah: You are not alone. The Center for Auto Safety, Washington, D.C., has received numerous complaints regarding the Mazda MPV EC-AT transmission, including slipping, vibration and total failure. Report problems to the National Highway Traffic Administration, which handles auto recalls.

M.G., North Seattle: You returned an unordered book to Reader's Digest and asked that your account be canceled. You do have a right to keep unordered merchandise, but you should notify the sender in writing by certified mail with return receipt requested.

M.G., West Seattle: All Tune and Lube agreed to reimburse you $27.38 for the second oil change and telephone calls. The company threw in a coupon for a free oil change, useable at any All Tune and Lube Center. Glad we could help. It's the principle of the matter that counts!

N.J., Renton: Levitz Furniture Corp. has credited your account for $70.34 for delivery charges. The corporation extends apologies.

T.S., Woodinville: Sorry we couldn't locate the company about which you asked. Counselor Co. is out of business, according to the Better Business Bureau of Rockford, Ill.

Shelby Gilje's Troubleshooter column appears Wednesday and Sunday in the Scene section of The Times. Do you have a consumer problem? Write to Times Troubleshooter, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include copies, not originals, of appropriate documents. Phone, 206-464-2262, fax 382-8873, or e-mail address, sgil-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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