Just prior to his 60th birthday, Robert Arnott* was given a PC and introduced to internet dating. Having never even used computers before, he was excited by the possibility of making friends. As he didn’t really like going to bars or taking drugs, he thought it would be a nice way to meet someone.

A young man calling himself Michael contacted Arnott. After exchanging messages, Arnott sent his phone number.

He seemed a nice person and said he genuinely liked older people, Arnott said.

What he wanted more than anything else was to talk with someone.

Michael phoned Arnott and asked Arnott to call him back. He said he worked for a telephone company near Central Station. He told Arnott to call him on a seldom-used inter-office line.

When Arnott called this number, a recorded voice warned the call would cost $5.45 per minute. Initially unconcerned, Arnott assumed the charge would not apply as Michael worked for a telephone company. They seemed to get on and Michael said he wanted to meet in person.

He told me he couldn’t meet for a week and suggested we talk every night to get to know each other, Arnott said.

Arnott called Michael several times that week. Hearing the warning again, he asked Michael to explain.

He said, -˜That’s a line we don’t use very often; don’t worry about it.’ I believed him because we were getting on so well.

But the story rang alarm bells for a friend, who advised caution. When Arnott next called, Michael admitted the charges did apply and then disappeared. Realising he had been duped, Arnott called Telstra and was slugged with a $1,196 phone bill.

Online dating is booming. The extensive Health In Men study suggests nearly 50 percent of gay men in Sydney have used dating sites in the last six months to meet partners. For older men and those who dislike the bar scene, the internet offers the possibility of making friends and meeting partners away from youth-orientated, image-conscious venues.

But the popularity of online dating has also stirred the interest of 190 prefix telephone services. These are premium rate lines leased from Telstra and typically used for information or live chat.

The Telephone Information Services Standards Council (TISSC) is the industry watchdog charged with investigating complaints about 190 services. Una Lawrence, an arbitrator with TISCC, says Arnott’s story is consistent with the complaints they receive.

It’s a pattern that’s emerged, she says. The call cost is there at the start of the service, which leads the caller to ask what charges do actually apply. Then the operator says -˜they don’t apply to you’, or -˜just ignore it’.

When the scammers contact their victims, there is no suggestion of a commercial operation.

They put up amazing photographs and have unbelievably good profiles. The internet allows people to hide behind this fa?e. As a form of meeting, it lends itself very much to disguise.

Lawrence says it’s loneliness and the need for company that makes people vulnerable to predatory behaviour. She is confident there is no collusion between dating sites and 190 service providers. In fact she has been contacted by dating companies who were equally concerned.

So what are websites doing about the scams?

Paul Trickey from the popular gay internet dating site Gaydar.com promises if a member is exposed as operating a commercial service like a premium rate phone line, their profile will be permanently suspended.

The support team at Gaydar closely monitors the site to make sure it stays as free from abuse as possible. We hope that most users understand we are not involved in such abuses.

It is difficult to police. This is where TISSC comes in. They investigate complaints about the content or advertising of 190 services and assess these against a code of practice to determine whether callers were fully aware of costs, given false information or unnecessarily delayed.

In Arnott’s case, the company who leased the number to Michael was Compudial. Compudial spokesperson Brett Gunderson says the company had no responsibility for people’s phone bills -“ the warnings about call costs were very clear and safeguards were more than adequate. Calls were automatically terminated every half hour and warnings about charges played before every connection.

No one says the call is free or that you can skip the cost. If somebody calls, it’s our responsibility to make sure they are fully aware of the costs. Believe me: they are.

Gunderson has a point. The warnings are hard to miss. But what about the claim of deceptive operators?

I consider that to be a bunch of hearsay, he says. Compudial recently abandoned its live operators for the gay market.

[Gay callers tend to] expect a lot more than just a telephone conversation, he explains. I’m not homophobic and I’ve got nothing against gays or anything like that, but they were most certainly problematic.

They could be pissed, or on drugs or in the middle of the night because they’re lonely and they don’t care what it costs at the time, they only care when they get their bill.

Gunderson says the live operator services were not sex services, but geared towards lonely hearts. However, some escorts used the lines to sort the men out from the boys.

Meeting’s okay, we don’t discourage that -¦ If one of the guys chooses to meet a client, that’s entirely up to them.

Robert Arnott’s advice is to be wary using 190 numbers.
The minute you hear that voice, -˜this is costing you $5.45 per minute’, it is!

Prior to this experience he had never heard of 190 services. While he says he was dumb to have fallen for the scam, he pities the young man who pretended to be his friend.

I think it’s pretty sad that somebody can trade off people’s yearning to meet someone.

Michael’s internet profile remains active, but hasn’t been logged into since 29 September last year, two weeks after Arnott made his complaint.

*name changed for privacy reasons

Complaints about 190 service providers can be raised with TISSC on 1300 139 955 (local call cost from a landline) or at www.190complaints.com.au.

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