Talk is cheap but not on a sex chat line

Johannesburg - Boys will be boys, so the saying goes, and it seems for some teenage boys that means seeing an advert for a sex chat line – in a newspaper or online – and deciding to make that call.

They assume, naively, the only cost will be that of a cellphone or landline call, but later their parents get a bill reflecting the dirty talk cost around R1.60 a SECOND, for a minimum of 10 minutes.

And then comes the harassment to pay up, followed by threats to charge the boy with fraud for lying about being over-18 at the start of the call. Credit: REUTERS

And then comes the harassment to pay up, followed by threats to charge the boy with fraud – for lying about being over-18 at the start of the call – and to play the recording of the conversation in court, and to seek a civil judgment against the parent for non-payment of the debt.

The big issues in this scenario, aside from the moral ones, are: can parents be held liable for paying for a service obtained by a minor child, and would a court prosecute a minor for fraud under such circumstances?

I suspect most parents buckle under the pressure and pay up. But some stand firm.

Consumer Talk recently investigated the case of 14-year-old Durban boy who used his father’s pre-paid cellphone to make a call to Hot Live Girls, having seen their advert in a local newspaper.

The woman who answered, calling herself Lily, first asked him if he was over 18. “Yes,” came the reply. “Which year you were born?” asked Lily, a question he clearly wasn’t expecting.

“I’m born in 20… er 199..4.”

And then Lily delivered the crucial information about the cost of the service, very fast, without the pauses which would have given the words meaning.

“We have a naughty special of a R100 that is payable within 72 hours. If not, the call will be charged at R1.65 per second for a minimum time of 10 minutes. You can phone back any time for the banking details, we are a 24-hour service…”

And without pausing for breath – or establishing whether the potential client had grasped the information, much less agreed to the charges – she launched into her raunchy routine.

The upshot is in order to pay that “naughty special” of R100 for the service, the caller has to be sharp enough to call back and get the banking details, and pay within three days.

If not, they – or their parents, in the case of a minor – are traced and hit with a fat bill. At R1.65 a second, it’s at least R1 000 when a tracing fee is added.

In this boy’s case, the saucy talk saw his father getting a bill for R1 560. When he didn’t pay, he started getting threatening SMSes, voicemails and e-mails.

A person over the age of 12 who commits a crime can be held liable for the offence, they said; they threatened to play the call recording in court and seek judgment against the father for the unpaid debt, and have his salary garnished.

Nerisha Besesar, an associate in Durban law firm Shepstone & Wylie’s litigation department, said someone under 18 had no legal capacity to enter into a contract, and the boy clearly didn’t understand and appreciate the terms of the contract.

And even if there was a binding contract, she said, a legal defence could be the poor disclosure of the service’s cost, which contravened the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act and the fact that it could be considered to be “unconscionable conduct in terms of the Consumer Protection Act”.

“Unconscionable conduct includes taking advantage of a consumer’s inability to appreciate the language and what they are getting themselves into,” she said.

As for whether the boy could be charged with fraud for lying about his age, legal sources said it was unlikely the court would decide to prosecute a minor for fraud, given the circumstances.

Social Network, which trades as Hot Live Girls, is based in Uvongo, KwaZulu-Natal and owned by Keith and Martie Lewis.

Asked how many times the company had actually proceeded to charge minors with fraud for lying about their age, they responded: “Nil”.

On the question of the lack of disclosure of the costs involved, they said they’d seek legal advice and would amend their process if necessary.

They claimed about 30 percent of callers manage to pay that special price of R100 within 72 hours. On the issue of under-age callers, they said if they insisted on being sent proof of age, callers would probably hang up and call another chat service. But again, they said they’d relook at their processes.

I put it to them that the boy in this case clearly sounded under 18. “Lily” had to have known he was under-age.

As it turns out, Social Network is not the only such company to be operating out of Uvongo on the South Coast. The sex chat line company which the investigative TV show Carte Blanche featured recently was another company, My Way, but its modus operandi is virtually identical.

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